Cal Shakes’ bloody vision of ‘Macbeth’

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies, and the new California Shakespeare Theater production never lets you forget it. 

Director Joel Sass gives his vividly theatrical staging in the show, which opened Saturday in the Bruns Amphitheater, plenty of grisly touches — torture scenes, severed heads in plastic bags, eviscerated corpses and buckets of gore.

For the most part, “Macbeth” can take it. 

Sass’ 2½-hour production, which runs through Sept. 12, doesn’t quite plumb the play’s tragic depths. But, it offers a fresh, often-bracing take on the “Scottish play” — one notably free of kilts and other timeworn devices.

Sass and his design team set the tone before a word is spoken.

Daniel Ostling’s bleak three-story set, enhanced by Russell Champa’s lurid lighting and Andre Pluess’ eerie score, places the action in an old asylum. The creepy institution has shattered windows, narrow stairways and a prominently placed operating room.

Soldiers scream as they’re wheeled into surgery. The nurses, who double as Shakespeare’s witches, are faceless women wearing white uniforms and green rubber gloves.

In addition to the usual swords, the weapons include knives, guns and IV drips. An air of anguished gloom prevails.

Macbeth (Jud Williford), costumed by Christal Weatherly, makes his first entrance in black fatigues and a beret — an elite special forces warrior on the fast track to statesmanship.

His wife (Stacy Ross as Lady Macbeth), dressed in silk kimonos and strapless gowns, is nervy and aggressive, driven to goad her husband into killing his way to the top. 

Williford and Ross, both Cal Shakes veterans, trace the doomed couple’s treachery and “vaulting ambition” with riveting, hyperactive energy. 

Williford’s best in the scenes calling for action; he never quite comes into focus in the soliloquies. 

Ross, in contrast, gets better as the night wears on, making her descent into madness with chilling verisimilitude. 

The rest of the cast is strong, with many assuming multiple roles: James Carpenter, who first appears as King Duncan, returns later as a shaggy Porter; and Nicholas Pelczar is a perceptive Banquo and an unctuous Lennox. 

Delia MacDougall’s tormented Ross, Craig Marker’s muscular Macduff, Nick Childress’ Malcolm and Omoze Idehenre’s Lady Macduff make indelible impressions.

Not all of Sass’ ideas work. Some scenes are cut, others rearranged. Those with the witches don’t register with the desired potency. 

When it hits the mark, though, this “Macbeth” sends chills up your spine. Sass drenches the play in blood and comes up with a visceral portrait of evil.

Theater Review

Macbeth

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. Sept. 11; closes Sept. 12

Tickets: $34 to $70

Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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