Ty Jones and Melissa Friedman in Macbeth
(© Carol Rosegg)
Ty Jones and Melissa Friedman in Macbeth
(© Carol Rosegg)
Shakespeare in modern dress is nothing new, but it's highly unlikely we've seen a death by ghetto-blaster before Ron Russell's production of Macbeth at the 47th Street Theatre. And that's hardly the only innovation -- some clever, some contrived -- that pops up in the Epic Theatre Ensemble's version of this great tragedy.

The story remains the same as Scottish warrior Macbeth (Ty Jones), whose battlefield promotion to Thane of Cawdor feeds his "vaulting ambition" -- is egged on by his wife, the even more homicidal Lady Macbeth (Melissa Friedman), to take on more power. So he decides to get his hands bloody by slaying reigning monarch Duncan (Richard Easton, seen only in flat-screen television footage) and thereby claiming the guilt-inducing crown.

Jones -- who played Henry V for the Classical Theatre of Harlem -- knows how to do fiery well, Whenever the murderous Macbeth loses his temper, Jones shakes the compact stage on which a movable staircase dominates. He hits his spirited peak in a dance at the banquet he and his spouse prepare where the slain Banquo (Rhett Henckel) appears to him and throws a wet blanket on the proceedings.

Unfortunately, Jones is less effective when he goes contemplative. Told of Lady Macbeth's demise -- news that prompts him to talk about life being "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" -- Jones blandly reacts as if he's just been informed his BMW is out of commission and won't be ready for two or three days. Nonetheless, Jones takes great care with the music in most of the Bard's speeches, as do Friedman, Henckel, Lori E. Parquet as Lady MacDuff, and Scott Kerns as Malcolm.

The constant presence of the three witches (Aime Donna Kelly, Julian Rozzell Jr., and James Wallert) proves to be one of Russell's best ideas. Whether watching the action or participating in it -- as when they surround Lady Macbeth who's imploring the gods to "unsex me now"-- they add eerie atmosphere. More than that, the trio of performers demonstrates their versatility by portraying other characters (although having Kelly grace the banquet scene as a pouf-garbed rock singer is not a great idea).

Conversely, Russell has the characters run boisterously up and down the lone aisle far too often, and using the television to impart developments in the action is becoming a theatrical cliché that should be avoided.

Perhaps Russell's most commendable addition is that in addition to a large soft-focus mother-child mural which set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams features on the upstage wall, he more than once broadcasts a photograph of the Macbeths in happier times holding a child. Although Lady Macbeth mentions offspring when she's demanding to be denatured as a woman, most Macbeth productions disregard the couple as parents. That innovation alone makes this offering memorable.