Macbeth begins the Carmel Shake-speare Festival with a nightmare in the round.

Mad Ambition: Double, Double: The actors assume multiple characters in this complex drama, populating the stage with an army of nine.

No question that the audience has been barraged by daily images of strife, noise and peril, embittered by governance that clasps to its chest every possible vestige of power, dulled by daytime television enactments of family dramas whose very meanness and violence are the desired spectacles. Even for such an audience, Macbeth is still deeply disturbing.

No question that the audience is intimately involved in the proceedings at the tiny Circle Theatre in Carmel, where some 70 observers and the nine actors in their midst exchanged body fluids on opening night as PacRep played out Shakespeare’s briefest and most bloody tragedy.

We are here in this tiny circle of seats around a naked black floor that wears only a plain chair and a painted arrow. Here waits the organ of imagination that the ensemble and its director bring to a drama that wants to begin on a dark and stormy night, and almost does.

From pitch dark, an omniscient mind lights up a portion of this untrammeled plain to grudgingly reveal three gauze-dressed humanoids clumped together in the dark like nematodes on a root: The witches chant phrases that interlock into a hum that builds until a bloodied figure emerges, panting, from one of the doors leading into the circle. Indeed, now, the die is cast, ‘the charm’s wound up,’ the tragedy unfurls.

Dark indeed, this tale of lust for power and treachery and the shedding of the blood of innocents: regicide offstage, infanticide on; murder of friends for dark ambition, a marriage twisted by evildoing. From the time Stephen Moorer as Macbeth and Michael D. Jacobs as his friend and fellow-nobleman, Banquo, encounter the witches, there is no respite.

From this first scene, director Kenneth Kelleher has set the cast a merciless pace and pitch that requires seatbelts and perhaps the adjustment of hearing devices. The cast spits out each word as if racing a metronome, and at a volume that keeps the rapid dialog reverberating against the walls in this intimate space. The galloping Shakespearean is often difficult to understand, especially wrapped in the unrelenting intensity of Moorer, Jacobs and Julie Hughett as Lady Macbeth. However, the staging is so sparsely spot-on and the physical commitment of every member of the cast so absolute that though phrases are sometimes knotted, the story does not unravel.

Several voices ring true amid the tumult: Jack Powell is a superb Duncan, conveying by his calm demeanor and regal bearing the quieter power of a man who is already king…but later, also lurching convincingly in his second role as a drunken Porter, providing a brief and welcome (though still gruesome) comic turn. He also plays the role of Macbeth’s phlegmatic servant Seyton, his unquestioning competence in evildoing a nightmare of its own.

The other voice so crisp and clear belongs to Shawna Cormier, who first appears as a witch, then as the king’s youngest son, Donalbain, in which role her voice has the effect of a sorbet between courses of a heavy meal: her every word is deliberate, natural and clean, and a great relief. Then, in her other role as Lady Macduff, she plays the only real innocent among the roaring combatants, and wins a tear.

• • •

Lady Macbeth is the Bard’s wickedest creation, recreated here by Julie Hughett. She has indeed obeyed the Lady’s directive to “unsex me here.” The beautiful woman has her hair combed back in a manly cap, she wears a black linen sheath dress and sensible heels, looking for all the world like a corporate hit-woman.

By the time we meet her, the seed of desire has been planted in Macbeth and he has written to his wife that the witches have predicted he will wear a crown. His return from the field of battle is not to a homecoming but to a plot.

The couple’s racing pace and shouted speech completely overshoot those brief moments when Shakespeare provides just an inkling of hesitation, the hint of warm moments between the man and the woman — within which the audience can feel anguish for the soul struggle of Macbeth, some sympathy for the characters. But no; here, the Lord and Lady are unlovably evil, and their self-inflicted doom deserves not a moment of mourning. Kelleher pushes the nightmare to the deepest chasms of hell as the Lady descends into madness and finally into a horror scene reminiscent of The Exorcist. Hughett gives a bravura performance as a soul consumed.

Kelleher has made so many brave decisions that this production is certainly worthy of respect. Just wrangling this wild giant of a play into such a tiny space is an amazing feat: Naked stage, players entering through the audience, modern and spare costuming. The lighting design by Michael Palumbo plays a critical role and deserves an ovation. The play’s the thing that conjures these memorable bogeymen, but this strong and committed production might just keep them haunting.  

MACBETH continues Fridays through Sundays until Oct. 14 at PacRep’s Circle Theatre, Monte Verde between Eighth and Ninth streets in Carmel. $30-$35 for adults, with discounts for students, seniors, teachers and active military. 622-0100 or pacrep.org.

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