In a little more than 100 minutes, and without an intermission, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's relatively small-cast “Macbeth” remains riveting throughout.
The tale of unbridled ambition in Scotland — as the increasingly ruthless Macbeths go on a murderous spree in their quest for the crown — feels frighteningly contemporary.
The free, outdoor show, directed by Kenneth Kelleher and performed through September at various Bay Area venues, seamlessly combines imaginative and sometimes stylized stage movement (movement choreographer, Andrea Weber), brisk pacing and steadily increasing emotional tension.
With some cuts to the text, this “Macbeth” is performed on a stage that's bare except for eight straight-back chairs that are rearranged for various effects, plus a group of tall, stationary red poles on stage left that serve as trees and other objects (set design by Kelleher).
It's also a vaguely modern-dress version of the cursed Scottish play. Particularly striking are Lady Macbeth's gorgeous blood-red gown and matching elbow-length gloves, and white and blood-red half-masks for the courtiers in some scenes (costumes by Jocelyn Leiser Herndon).
As the conniving couple, Michael Ray Wisely and Emily Jordan deliver clear and carefully calibrated performances as, in their individual but fatally linked journeys, they become increasingly subsumed by their own blood lust and guilt.
Wisely steadily, and organically, moves from queasy hesitation — as he's egged on by his wife to commit the first of many murders — to a sort of mindless, animalistic abandon as his dreams for the future spin out of control.
At the same time, Jordan progresses from ferocious glee to a physically manifested jerky jumpiness that leads inevitably to that mad sleep-walking scene.
The gradual, and chillingly dramatic, downfall of the couple feels all too human.
Smaller roles are played equally convincingly. Ryan Tasker's calm-sounding Macduff dips naturally into a brief frenzy of anguish in a key scene. And the three “wayward sisters” are beautifully portrayed by three silent and graceful young women in whiteface who climb up and down ladders and hover eerily above the stage on the multitiered set, their weird incantations and prophecies rendered in echoey voiceovers.
Particularly resonant are the ways in which Kelleher puts the rigid, white-faced ghosts of the murdered victims to use in voicing lines of text normally spoken by some of the incidental characters.
Matt Stines' soundscore also perfectly enhances the production's varying moods and atmosphere.
Presented by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Where: Sequoia High School, 1201 Brewster Ave., Redwood City
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 25
Contact: (415) 558-0888, www.sfshakes.org
Note: San Francisco performances also are at 2 p.m. weekends Aug. 31-Sept. 15 at the Presidio Main Post ground lawn, and 2 p.m. Sept. 21-22 in McLaren Park.