Reading dry Shakespeare texts and going to parties at friends’ places seem like quintessential parts of the American high school experience. Typically these two disparate activities do not happen at the same time, but what if they did? Hunter Theater Project’s Mac Beth, directed and adapted by Erica Schmidt, makes the case for this. Trading Scottish kilts for pleated skirts, the production sets the play among a group of high school girls hanging out together in the woods. They gleefully take on various roles, dance to songs like Sizzy Rocket’s “Girls to the Front,” and plot “revenge” against each other. Mac Beth brings Shakespeare’s text to life and into the 21st century in a way that supports the text rather than seeming at odds with it. Sure, the adaptation gently peppers contemporary slang and jokes into the script, and while these additions don’t really add anything, they don’t detract from the production either.
Otherwise, the occurrences in the lives of high school girls and of Scottish nobles synthesize well with each other. The scene in the original text in which Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at a banquet plays out here like a prank at a party. Three girls splash the blood-red contents of their cups onto a fourth girl as she pops up from behind a sofa, scaring the guilt-ridden Mac Beth practically to Dunsinane. There’s a fine line between comedy and horror, and the adaptation gets a lot of mileage out of this knowledge. What’s mortifying to one adolescent can just as easily make another one laugh, especially when they’re not the butt of the prank gone horribly awry. As the play goes on, the girls engage in increasingly risky and wild behavior until lines get crossed.
Does Mac Beth tell the story of a group of high school girls acting out the Scottish Play in the woods or reliving it? Dramaturgically, the answer lies in a grey area, much like the morality of the play’s title character. The characters begin by taking up the roles of Shakespeare’s play and acting it out, but eventually, get carried away and end up literally re-enacting the events of the tragedy. A note in the program by Akiva Fox explains that the original production drew inspiration from a real-life murder in 2014 involving the internet urban legend of “Slenderman.” Some years removed from the tragic event, this production doesn’t have the advantage of a headline ingrained in the common consciousness to help tell this story. The transition from make-believe into reality isn’t as seamless, likely as a result. Yet it still has a strong impact in bringing Macbeth out of the classroom and into the lives of adolescent girls trying to figure out their identities in a time of turmoil. Between obsessions with social status and prestige, the high school shares more than a few parallels with a royal society gone awry.
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