Three Crows’s Black Box “Macbeth” is Intimate, Accessible, and Full of Heart

Associate Arts Editor Zachary Leiter reviews Three Crows ensemble theater company’s abridged production of “Macbeth,” which exhibits great depth of passion despite minor flaws.


Three Crows

Steve Peebles as Macbeth in Three Crows’ abridged production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.

By Zachary Leiter, Associate Arts Editor

This October at the Redtwist Theatre in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, the Three Crows ensemble theater company has crafted an intriguing, if imperfect, iteration of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Three Crows’s mission is accessibility and Redtwist’s is intimacy; together, the visions work well. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, and the small black box theater seats only about 30 people for each of the show’s 15 nights. Sitting just feet from the stage, audience members are splashed with fake blood as Macbeth dies in front of them (I’m gonna spoil the play, sorry—it’s been around for 400 years). Shakespeare’s language remains the same, but the play has been cut substantially. The original play’s fascinating, sometimes infuriating plot persists intact, though the characters and their motives are fuzzier in this rendition than in most. This is not a particularly polished Macbeth, but it’s the rare theatrical performance with a real, palpable heart.

At the center of this Macbeth, as at the center of any good Macbeth, are the titular lord turned treacherous king and his conniving wife, Lady Macbeth. They are played here by Steve Peebles and Selena Lopez, respectively, and strongly so. He is rageful where she is manipulative and they are both convincingly power-hungry and bloodthirsty. Some of their development as characters is lost to the play’s shorter runtime, which is only 100 minutes, with many of those minutes taken up by action rather than dialogue. For instance, Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness is even more sudden than usual, and her husband is persuaded to kill his countrymen more easily than seems reasonable. But both actors are convincing nevertheless. Lopez, especially, communicates her character’s fear and fury with true fervor. To see her wring her hands, fall to the floor, and moan during her various deranged bouts…one glimpses something otherworldly in her horror at her sins. And Peebles’s delivery of Macbeth’s most famous soliloquy—“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…”—after his wife’s death is, in a word, spectacular. Occasionally, with lesser lines, Peebles mistakes loudness for passion, but as the play draws to a close, he provides a perfect exploration of Macbeth’s existential disillusionment.

Also with strong performances were Stephen Dunn as Duncan, Alex Amery as Macduff, and Nathaniel Negrón as Banquo. In his few scenes before being brutally murdered offstage, Dunn’s Duncan is an image of regal strength, and one with particularly smooth and well-paced speech. Amery comes into his own as Macduff late in the play with a thunderous tirade against Macbeth, though early on Macduff is resigned to a strange ensemble status. And Negrón—particularly as Banquo’s ghost (a lot of people die in this play)—was sophisticated and vibrant.

This play was carried by its cast. And, I think, with all the strangely-set, fantastical retellings of Shakespeare around—I once saw Macbeth with the three witches as KGB operatives—there’s a genuine appeal to producing Shakespeare in a black box theater; With minimal lighting, few props, and forced closeness, the attention is on the original script. And while this production does not shed any new light on Macbeth, it definitely illuminates the beautiful four-hundred-year-old script. This rendition is as close to what I’d call contemporary conversational English as Shakespeare gets.

That is not to say that this Macbeth is entirely unembellished. Sound designer Samuel Fitzwater-Butchart puts the theater’s small size to good use with knocking sounds that seem to come from everywhere at once. Another smart move from Fitzwater-Butchart: As water spills out of the fountain constructed upstage center, where Macbeth and his wife frequently attempt to wash away their crimes, the water echoes as it splashes on the ground. That fountain is put to great effect twice: First, when two assassins miraculously dump Banquo into it, at which point he miraculously disappears. And second, when he later reappears, rising as a green-lit ghost, drenched and dripping, from the fountain. These are, to be clear, real effects, rather than mere illusions, and Banquo does legitimately swim (out of the audience’s sight) off stage. To create these effects would be impressive in a much larger theater; to witness them from such a small company and in such an intimate setting is marvelous.

Again, this production has its faults. The fake blood was not particularly convincing. Lady Macbeth’s robes—one strangely see-through and one oddly kimono-esque—were jarring and out of place. Some of the stage combat felt rote, or worse, comically slow. And, agh, this is another Macbeth where the witches feel too human, where they seem to be trying to convince Macbeth rather than embracing the nuance of the script’s witches: That of being in cahoots with Macbeth, but then watching and laughing as he fails to outsmart his fate.

But in the end, watching Banquo die and then return gloriously, watching Lady Macbeth before she kills herself, and then watching Macbeth mourn Lady Macbeth afterwards, one cannot help but be caught up in the bloody passion of it all.

Three Crows’ abridged production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is at the Redtwist Theatre through October 30.