Theater Review: “Voodoo Macbeth” at American Century Theatre

Orson Welles’s 1936 Caribbean reinvention of Shakespeare’s tragedy gets a fuzzy staging in Arlington.

By: Missy Frederick

In Voodoo Macbeth, everything feels just a little bit louder and a lot more complicated than in the traditional version of the Shakespearean classic—but all the noise doesn’t necessarily add up to dramatic impact.

This version of the iconic tale of murder and regret, currently being staged by American Century Theatre, is an ode to Orson Welles’s infamous interpretation—but it’s hardly a faithful re-creation. When Welles took on the play in 1930s Harlem, he significantly changed the script, used an all-black cast, moved the Scottish play to Haiti, and transformed the weird sisters into Voodoo priestesses.

ACT director Kathleen Akerly keeps Welles’s script but not much else. The show’s set evokes a futuristic military encampment (the play has been moved back to Scotland), and while Voodoo Macbeth’s characters might share a pagan-looking cloak and perform creepy, bloody rituals, these worshippers’ creed is clearly of the Christian variety. It’s a point driven home by the use of iconic crosses and the musical choices (the soldiers pray while singing riffs on “Amazing Grace” and “Ave Maria”), but it’s also one of the production’s sources of confusion.

Contemporary audiences aren’t strangers to radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare—traditional takes have come to feel more rare than “creative” ones. Voodoo Macbeth’s most significant shift (Welles’s all-black cast has been nixed) is the beefing up of the role of Hecate (William Hayes) into the powerful leader behind the black magic, and the switch of Lady Macbeth’s character into Gruoch (Matt Dewberry), a male adviser to the titular character (he’s still tasked with the character’s classic speeches). It’s interesting to watch this change play out—Hayes’s Hecate is a creepy, dominant force, and a male Lady Macbeth strips the role of the sexuality driving her manipulative power. But the loss of such an iconic character is palpable, and Gruoch’s impact is dwarfed by Hecate’s mastery of dark magic, rendering him a more secondary character.

Joseph Carlson as Macbeth gives an intense and transformative performance, moving convincingly from reluctant leader to arrogant murderer. He’s flanked by Frank Britton as an even-keeled and eerie Banquo, while Cyle Durkee brings a relaxed lunacy to the comic relief role of the Porter. A tight, fast-paced sword fight between Macbeth and Christopher Dwyer’s stalwart Macduff provides a thrilling climax to the play. It’s an important example of a time when overt theatrics serve the production well. At other times, there’s just too much flash and gore—blood spurts everywhere to unintentionally comic effect; multiple gunshots (sometimes even into the audience) feel like a distraction. A little streamlining and clarity would go a long way to make Voodoo Macbeth stand out in a sea of Shakespearean revisions.

American Century Theatre’s production of Voodoo Macbeth runs through April 13 at the Gunston Arts Center. Running time is about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($35 to $40) are available via American Century’s website.