Baileys Harbor — Although Door Shakespeare has been around since 1995, 15 of the 19 Shakespeare productions it staged before this year have involved just six of the Bard’s comedies; a “Romeo and Juliet” from a full decade ago represents the company’s lone production of a Shake-speare tragedy.
But along with a new seating configuration, new light poles and a new leadership team spearheaded by the energetic Amy Ludwigsen as executive director, Door Shakes is mounting its inaugural productions of two Shakespeare plays this summer: “Macbeth” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Rather than choosing a particular period, director Jason Economus has set his galvanic, fast-paced “Macbeth” — lashed forward by the relentless drum in Dan Poppen’s sound design — “anytime and no time,” in every age as well as in that nightmarish dreamscape standing outside time altogether.
Traditional Scottish kilts mix with modern-day combat boots. Black poles serve as swords — but also double as rifles. And those foul witches who plague our unconscious are everywhere throughout the play — tempting Macbeth to his doom, called upon by Lady Macbeth as the spirits that “tend on mortal thoughts” and supping at the banquet featuring Banquo’s restless ghost.
Liberating “Macbeth” from a specific setting not only makes it easier to cut the script. It also transforms these characters into timeless archetypes, condemned to repeat a story as old as Celtic prehistory and as current as the murderous will to power in every human heart, proving anew what King Duncan learns the hard way: You can’t trust what you see in a person’s face.
All of us are deceiving doubles, ensuring never-ending toil and trouble. Economus reinforces this point by making virtue from the necessity of a cast that’s too small to cover all this play’s characters. To take the most vivid example, Matt Foss’ roles include the loyal Rosse, comforting Lady Macduff — and also the killer who then slits her throat and strangles her child.
Even the Macbeths — convincingly played as the passionate couple that they are by Reese Madigan and Angela Iannone — could be seen as two versions of a single being, with Iannone giving life to the hungry darkness in Macbeth’s troubled and sleepless soul. Madigan’s Macbeth can’t resist her.
And no wonder: I defy any theatergoer to resist Iannone when she gets hold of roles — like her memorable Medea or this outstanding Lady Macbeth — featuring an emotionally supercharged assault on civilized norms. It’s old-fashioned melodrama in the very best sense: It exposes the tissue-thin limits of everyday convention, taking us deeper while raising the emotional stakes.
As Macbeth gives way to the “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” — Madigan, whose physical acting in this production is first-rate, hops at this point from one side of a tree stump to the other — he shrinks, unable to fill his borrowed kingly robes.
Madigan tracks Macbeth’s devolution by accelerating the delivery of his lines to nearly breakneck speed; the man whose lingering conscience had once paused before the brink now hurtles toward his doom. By the time this Macbeth sneers at the idiotic sound and fury signifying nothing, there is no question that the “walking shadow” he describes is himself.
Himself — and also each of us. Economus doesn’t end with Malcolm’s triumphant ascension to the throne, but with the intriguing suggestion that Macduff — whose very name conjures images of Macbeth — will himself fall under the spell of the witches. In this exciting, thought-provoking “Macbeth,” history isn’t a redemptive march but a vicious circle. It eventually rounds on us all.
‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’
Samuel Johnson praised its “sparks of genius.” James Joyce particularly loved it. Harold Bloom has written that no Shakespeare play — including many he admits are better — gives him “more unmixed pleasure.”
But of all the Shakespeare comedies, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” may now be the hardest sell. Most ornately Elizabethan of all the Bard’s plays and stylistically closest to his sometimes thorny sonnets, it’s stuffed with brilliant but dense wordplay that leaves many theatergoers lost — and cold.
In Door Shakespeare’s production, director Foss goes at this problem with hammer, tongs and a sometimes overly blunt ax. The resulting two-hour version is more accessible, and we should all welcome adaptations that shed new light on these great, many-sided plays. But in cleaving so close to the bone, Foss risks losing a larger sense of what this play is actually about.
Such as it is, the plot is simple. The young King of Navarre and three boon companions take a pledge to devote all their energies to study, with a view toward thinking big thoughts and writing great books. They will see no women, continually fast and sleep just three hours each night.
Berowne — smartest and darkest of this foursome — predicts from the get-go that the gents’ compact will fail. No sooner are the words out of his mouth than they’re proven true, as the Princess of France shows up with three attending ladies of her own. The boys fall hard — even if their self-important and misogynistic oath won’t initially let them admit it.
Aided by a shrewd and tart French ambassador (Iannone, again excellent), the women immediately see what their would-be swains cannot: They’re really still madly in love with themselves.
The guys write filigreed lines and make flowery speeches to their newfound beloveds, but their driving impulse in doing so is hearing the sound of their own rhetorical flourishes — driven home here by clever props that include a long roll of unfurling poetry and the giant-sized quill pen that’s used to write it.
The Door Shakes quartet can be very funny in conveying the frat-house aspect of the guys’ immaturity. But Foss’ cuts don’t give them enough room to capture how alluring — and therefore perilous — these narcissistic word games can be.
This structural flaw is particularly noticeable with regard to Berowne, whose speeches are so dazzling that one can lose sight of how dangerously indulgent they are. David Folsom does this role proud, handling the verse with a rakish, devil-may-care ease that suggests Berowne knows he talks well and looks good.
I’d have therefore loved to hear more from him — and more of the jousting between this Berowne and Jennefer Ludwigsen’s smartly snippy Rosaline, brightest of the young women. The relationship between Berowne and Rosaline is a dry run of the sparkling exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” but we get little sense of that here.
Foss gives us even less sense of this play’s extensive subplot, in which a Spanish dandy and his page as well as a clown, a constable, a curate, a pedant and a country wench pointedly double the hot air blowing at court. Four of these seven characters and entire scenes are gone; efforts to reassign their missing lines, which include drawing on a member of the audience, feel forced.
What’s left can be a lot of fun; As the foppish Don Armado, a clowning Bret Tuomi is especially so. But just as this production’s main plot has been reduced to yet another romantic comedy, its subplot is often little more than capering dances, interpolated music and sight gags — tasty scraps making us hungry for a larger feast of words.
On the plus side, that means that this production whets our appetite for more. The audience members around me clearly had a good time. If some of them drove home intent on pulling “Love’s Labour’s Lost” off the shelf for a second look, it’s hard to take issue with this first, sometimes tantalizing glance through which Door Shakes has prompted them to read on.
IF YOU GO
“Macbeth” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” continue in repertory through Aug. 17 at the Garden at Björklunden in Baileys Harbor. For tickets, call (920) 839-1500 or visit doorshakespeare.com.