Macbeth is a crowd-pleaser during election years, if only because it's refreshing to watch a noble man dive deeply into the murky underworld of political machinations and emerge a bloody-handed murderer. At least as a member of a representative democracy you have the option of voting for the other candidate — not a possibility, alas, in poor dark ages Scotland.
But director Suki Peters opts for a different route in her staging of Macbeth, which is presented by St. Louis Shakespeare through the end of this week. Her Macbeth (Ben Ritchie) and Lady Macbeth (Michelle Hand) are but pawns of an evil power that leads them to ruin. No, not the lobbyists and big money donors, damn them all to hell: the Weird Sisters. This Macbeth is more horror story than political allegory, and it relies on the resounding strength of its female cast (and characters) to put a new sheen on the tale.
Peters has a talent for devising potent blocking that enriches Shakespeare's dialogue, and Chuck Winning's stage design displays these scenes for maximum impact. A massive dead tree dominates center stage, with eerie, coffin-shaped doorways on the left and the right. That tree serves as home base for the Weird Sisters, the alien witches who predict Macbeth will one day be king and that his pal Banquo (Maxwell Knocke) will father a line of future kings. These witches — Elizabeth Knocke, Taleesha Caturah and Katie Robinson — drape themselves across its sere branches and huddle atop its blasted hulk, issuing prophecies and dooming both Macbeths for the fun of it.
Ritchie, who's on a bit of a tear lately playing troubled men (he was Brutus in St. Louis Shakespeare's season-opening Julius Caesar), seems to be a man outside of reason and comfort as he steels himself to kill his liege, Duncan (Kim Curlee). "Is this a dagger I see before me?" he asks as if very far away, and the witches are visible in sickly green light atop the tree, eagerly thrusting a dagger toward him.
Lady Macbeth is also under the sisters' sway, but perhaps held on a looser leash. She asks for her blood to be thickened so that she has the courage to finish her husband's botched regicide. Hand walks clockwise during her appeal, and above her the Weird Sisters clasp hands and mirror her circle, controlling her from afar with their dark magic — or perhaps themselves caught in the gyre of Lady Macbeth's hungry ambitions, which will soon devour her.
Hand is a contained and controlled Lady Macbeth, one who uses steely intonation to dominate her husband and dismiss her servants. In an interesting twist those servants are played by the three witches, making them black-garbed cancers in the Macbeth household as well as in their master's nightmares.
Banquo is well played by Knocke, who fights so furiously to defend his son from Macbeth's assassins (Shane Signorino and Michael Pierce) that he convinces you that after 405 years of productions, this is the night his character breaks free and lives. Alas, it's not to be. But as the gore-drenched corpse of Banquo, Knocke gets to terrify Macbeth and audiences alike for the rest of the evening. (Nathan Schroeder's creepy lighting enhances Knocke's surprise entrances.)
And what of noble Macduff, who ends this reign of terror? Maggie Wininger is effective and heroic in the role. She and Ritchie engage in a protracted duel that comes down to the wire, thanks to fight director Erik Kuhn's inventive choreography. It's a nice change of pace to see a woman swing a sword onstage, and what's more, Wininger is good at it. She fights with a righteous fury, driven by the assassination of her wife (Wendy Farmer) and children (Dylan James and Riley James) at Macbeth's behest. Inspired by the memory of her beloved spouse and children, she triumphs in the end and lives to impale her foe's head on a pike.
See, it really is about the election.