Off-Broadway Review: MAKE THICK MY BLOOD (DE-CRUIT at Studio Theatre, Theatre Row)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on July 29, 2022

in Theater-New York


“When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurley-burley’s done, when the battle’s lost and won…” These opening lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth have probably been spoken by the witches in almost every production of this play since Shakespeare last sat in the back of the house taking notes. However, in Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern’s brilliant new adaptation titled Make Thick My Blood, it is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who speak these famous lines, huddled together on the ground, while Lady M cradles their newborn baby (a child that is referenced in the play’s text but rarely brought to the forefront). Also surprising, these lines don’t occur at the beginning of this taut, fifty-five minute, thoroughly engaging production currently running at the The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row.

Directed and choreographed by Alexandra Beller, the production starts with an extended, non-verbal, movement piece that explores the trauma suffered by this couple – the initial experience of it, the holding of it and the resonance of it. Calling this work, which is re-visited throughout the performance, “movement” is a bit of an understatement. In the hands of Ms. Beller, physicality becomes physicalized text that tells a specific story of it’s own, sometimes in tandem with – sometimes in opposition to, the spoken word. While this opening can feel a bit intellectual at times, Ms. Beller is cleverly laying a foundation for her vision that delivers plenty of emotional punch as the show progresses.

This adaptation is not yet another high-concept approach to Shakespeare that fundamentally doesn’t believe a modern audience can access the Bard’s work. In fact, it is quite faithful to the original text – though with some extensive edits and a few reassignments of lines. Wolfert and Stern score big creatively by changing what some of these famous lines are spoken in relation to, providing some of night’s most jarring moments by the new meaning they now embody.

Though edited, the story is pretty much the same. Stout-hearted general is told by other-worldly spirits (not that he asked) that he will one day be king. Seems impossible, as he is not in the line of succession. When the first part of the prophecy comes true, he sends a message to his wife about the prediction. She fears he does not have the guts to make the prediction happen, as he would have to murder the current King, a dear and respected friend. But, as these things usually go, the King is secretly murdered by Macbeth and soon there’s a new royal couple in town. But regal life is not what it’s cracked up to be and the Macbeths eventually descend into madness and more murder.

But, you know, why? Why did they do it in the first place? By lifting almost every bit of script that is not directly related to the main couple (sorry all you soldiers except Banquo), Wolfert and Stern attempt to figure that out. Are they successful? Was there a more concrete experience than just “vaulting ambition” that spurs the doomed twosome on to the “golden round”? I’m not sure the motivations for fictional characters are as important as what that fictional journey illuminates about why real people take the actions they do. On that point, the production wins its case for viscerally demonstrating the effect of trauma on personal behavior. And personal it is for when both of these excellent actors work, they so fully inhabit their characters it can sometimes feel like an intrusion to watch.

Whether playing their main roles (Wolfert as Macbeth and Stern as Lady Macbeth) or slipping into the few supporting characters that made the cut, both actors are mesmerizing to watch. They bring living, breathing human beings to the stage and make the words as clear and understandable as from any current playwright. The beginning of Wolfert’s paranoia in the dagger scene (with Stern as the dagger) is as scary as it is compelling and Stern gives new and unforgettable meaning to the phrase “out, out, damn spot.” Brittany Vasta’s claustrophobic and cobwebby set, Raven Ong’s period-ish costumes, Dawn Chiang’s atmospheric lighting and Alexandra Beller’s textured sound successfully underscore that the show’s focus is as much on the inner world as on the outer

It’s just under an hour. It’s primarily Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. It deals with inner terrain. And it’s as entertaining and artistically unique as any production of much larger scale. So all hail, Macbeth. And the Mrs.

photos by Ashley Garrett
poster art by Clara Jewel Moore

Make Thick My Blood (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St.
ends on August 6, 2022
for tickets, visit Theatre Row or DE-CRUIT
(DE-CRUIT’s production of She-Wolf plays August 12-20, 2022).

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