nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 5, 2008
Bitch Macbeth is a big, ambitious, visually and aurally stunning work of theatre. A reworking of a play he first mounted back in 2001, this is indie theater auteur Frank Cwiklik's first production at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, and he has transformed the space in striking ways to recount this sprawling, uneven, sometimes confusing but never uninteresting tale, an amalgam of at least three plays by Shakespeare plus decades of apocalyptic science fiction and a number of film genres (gangster, noir, even Monty Python in a couple of places). For all its antecedents, it's uncompromisingly an original, and if you've not had a chance to see Cwiklik's remarkable imagination at work, it's certainly showcased lavishly here.
The story is complicated. We're in what I take to be the future, in a world where the richest men (they're almost all men) indulge in what we'd call depravity—S&M, hallucinogenic drugs, wanton sex, that sort of thing. Slavery is legal; women are sold at auction at a place called the Fuckbar. Power is held by a few prominent families ("Houses"), whose patriarchs are called "Crowns," matriarchs are "Femmes," and the eldest child/heir apparent is the "Prime." A sinister, shockingly calm figure known only as Rbiter manages affairs among these Houses. A group of dominatrixes, led by Copper, provide what amounts to the only religion in this universe, a kind of witchcraft/soothsaying that provides a link and parallel to the original Macbeth, whose basic storyline is sketchily but recognizably followed here.
House Macbeth is, as the play begins, a minor but overweeningly ambitious House. Femme Macbeth in particular is eager to rise above her current station, and wants to challenge the dominant House Asbury. Her more cautious husband counsels that they take their time, attacking smaller Houses first; but the prophecies of Copper and her followers make him bolder and by the end of the play's first act, the Macbeths have gone up against the Asburys and managed to win Prime Asbury (daughter of the House) as a slave.
Small Asbury (Prime's brother) plots revenge that sort of parallels Malcolm's in Shakespeare and the Macbeths do finally get their just desserts (though not at all in the way you might expect). There's a surprising plot twist involving Prime Asbury and Macbeth; an unexpected oracle; and I forgot to mention that two slightly bumbling gents named Rosenstern and Guildencrantz are the operators of the Fuckbar. The ending is not, to my mind, fully satisfying: Cwiklik seems to be of two minds about how to conclude the piece, with a cynical, well-earned climax clashing with a kind of hopeful promise of better times to come that follows. (But then, Hamlet ends with that weird Fortinbras scene.)
What is firmly wrought here is a relentless, dark, moody atmosphere that's unlike anything I've ever experienced before: it's bloody, even pulpy; noirish, chilling, and almost all of the time completely serious—not a shred of irony or camp where there absolutely could be, which is what makes the show feel simultaneously so compelling and so off-kilter. We're just not used to cynical dread that believes in itself.
Cwiklik has arranged the seating at the Brick so that the audience is lined up in single long rows against two opposite walls; the action plays out in the area between and off to one side, on a riser above a large, undisguised sound booth where Cwiklik runs the show himself, unobtrusive but present, the silent conductor of this ride. Sets are minimal; lighting and sound (both designed by Cwiklik) are spectacular.
A cast of 20 perform this mammoth work, with some of the standouts being Adam Swiderski as Macbeth, Fred Backus as Rbiter, Bob Laine as Asbury, and Michele Schlossberg as Copper; special mentions are appropriate for Bryan Enk and Matthew Gray as Rosenstern and Guildencrantz, roles they've essayed in the two previous mountings of Bitch Macbeth and which are now immovably and undeniably their property—they are the glorious dark comic relief in a show that is otherwise notably dour. Laine is enormously impressive in a breakdown scene that presages a Lear in his future, while Swiderski is particularly chilling executing the neat, efficient fight choreography (by Schlossberg) in the play's several battle scenes.
There's some unexpected ballet/modern dance-style choreography by Sarah E. Jacobs that's lovely to watch, though I wondered if this differs in tone too much from the rest of the production. There is also a lot of female nudity that almost always feels gratuitous.
Mostly, there's a lot of everything here: it's a big bruiser of a tale, and it clocked in at more than 2-3/4 hours at the performance I attended (Cwiklik assures us that the show will tighten up some as the run progresses). It's a great showcase for Cwiklik and his company's singular style though perhaps something of an overload, what with so much that's unfamiliar in the story to take in and process. Marvel, though, at the vision and the imagination and the ingenuity that can put such an impressively elaborate production on stage on an indie theater budget. This revival of Bitch Macbeth only makes me hungry for more, new Cwiklik, and I hope we'll be seeing lots of that in the near future.