Classic tales require no embellishment.
Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is one of those tales.
An examination of the devastating effects of unchecked ambition and immorality, "Macbeth" needs no gimmicks to make it resonate with a contemporary audience. In fact, over-conceptualizing this tragedy can obscure its fundamental message of the corrupting influence of absolute power.
There's no danger of that at First Folio Theatre, an Oak Brook company that typically eschews high-concept high jinks in favor of a more traditional approach to Shakespeare. Director Nick Sandys' solidly straightforward, deferential production maintains the tradition. Well-paced if somewhat restrained (perhaps too restrained at times), it's faithful to the play's medieval setting and temperament, which falls midway between reason and superstition. Book-ended by battles (artfully staged by Sandys, one of the area's pre-eminent fight directors) and featuring telltale sound by Miles Polaski, the production boasts some provocative choices by Sandys.
There's the near constant presence of the witches - seers (or are they instigators?) played by Michael Goldberg, Maggie Kettering and Jazmin Corona - who slip into supporting roles when they're not serving as a supernatural impetus.
There are the soldiers' painted faces - a nod to "Braveheart," Mel Gibson's paean to 13th century Scottish patriot William Wallace - which also inject a bit of the primal into the production. There's the arresting, accusatory spectre of Lady Macduff (Maggie Kettering) come to torment Lady Macbeth (Patrice Egleston), and a pointed, nonverbal exchange between Malcolm (Aaron Graham) and young Fleance (Nicole Zare) at the end of the play that suggests the quest for power never ceases.
The play opens with Scottish generals Macbeth (the able Nathan F. Hosner) and Banquo (Dominic Green) returning to court following their defeat of a rebel army. Along the way, they meet three witches (led by the charismatic Goldberg), who hail Macbeth as the future king of Scotland and promise Banquo that his sons will sit upon Scotland's throne. After Macbeth informs his audaciously ambitious wife (a cool, restrained Egleston) of the prophecy, the couple plot to kill King Duncan (the ever regal Patrick Clear) during his visit to their estate. Duncan's murder leaves the court reeling and forces Duncan's sons Malcolm (Graham) and Donalbain (Jason Kellerman) into exile along with Macduff (E.B. Smith), a nobleman loyal to Malcolm.
That leaves the usurper Macbeth free to assume the crown.
Anxious to secure his throne and prevent Banquo's heirs from replacing him, Macbeth dispatches a group of murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. Fleance escapes but the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth who, like his wife, has become increasingly unstable. The witches' next prophecy prompts an especially heinous response from Macbeth that ultimately seals his fate and that of his wife.
Hosner has a sort of a everyday affability that makes his transformation from loyal soldier to usurper, and ultimately to tyrant, all the more appalling. Hosner's Macbeth was more civil than I'm accustomed to, but his performance reflects perfectly the detached manipulation that underscores the actions of these characters.
Not everything works. Goldberg plays three roles with little in the way of costume changes which makes for some confusion. On opening night, the combat scenes didn't deliver the kind of thrills I expect will come once the actors have settled into the choreography. But Hosner and Egleston have good chemistry, the witches are perfectly in sync and Angela Miller's rough, forbidding set with its strategically placed runes provides a suitable backdrop to a timeless tale.
Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook
Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 9
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $23, $28
Parking: Free lot adjacent to grounds
Box office: (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
Rating: For teens and older