Puppet Macbeth is an “outstanding, fresh take” on Shakespearian tragedy in Toronto parks
This is not the first time that I’ve seen puppets speak the words of Shakespeare, but this is the first time that I’ve seen such a well-done Shakespearean puppet show for adults. With a winsome blend of humour and sorrow, Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Macbeth: Walking Shadows is one of those productions that truly deserves to be called innovative in my opinion.
Macbeth, the most famous Shakespearean tragedy that doesn’t involve angst-ridden young people, is about the murderous ambitions of King Macbeth. And I guess it’s also famous for being “that Scottish play” that no one mentions for fear of bad luck. The production seems to whole-heartedly embrace this reputation by inviting the audience to shout out the title at the beginning of the play.
Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett is especially effective at evoking mood, and he does a fantastic job of emphasizing the more fantastical elements of Macbeth here. Scenes are preceded by haunting acapella interludes from a community choir clad in woody hues, and each moment is perfectly coloured by Nic Vincent’s lighting design.
The choice of playing in a grove, while difficult for sightlines, nicely complimented all the forest motifs in the play. The puppets themselves were also similarly versatile with interchangeable limbs made from bones, wood, and rope (there’s a theme here). And when all these elements were combined, the sights and sounds of the play can become absolutely breathtaking, such as when additional limbs and red lighting created a frightening yet beautifully symbolic backdrop for Lady Macbeth’s famous “unsex me here” speech.
The puppets didn’t have movable mouths, so the actors had to convey more through physically moving them. This worked especially well for an outdoor performance where vocal work can sometimes get lost admist the sounds of a public park. Puppetry seems to lend itself so well to outdoor performances that I’m surprised more people don’t attempt it.
The ensemble was so strong that I had a hard time believing the director’s claim in the program that some cast members have never worked with puppets before. Alexander Crowther is a standout as Macbeth, whose tortured vocal performance was well matched by his nuanced puppet manipulations. Kaitlin Morrow and Kaitlyn Riordoan also provided some fantastic moments of levity and hilarious ad-libs.
Although there was much solemn reverence paid to the deaths in Macbeth, McMurtry-Howlett and the cast successfully infused a great deal of humour into the play. Whether that choice had to do with the tradition of puppetry or its family-friendly setting, it was fascinating to see how the humour never seemed out of place, even though Macbeth is often placed firmly on the side of tragedy. Real life is a mix of the tragic and the comedic, and the way it was so wonderfully interwoven into this production reminded me of why Shakespeare’s tragicomedies were often said to have been his most grounded, resonating pieces.
The one thing about the production that wasn’t as clearly conveyed to me was the post-apocalyptic setting. It was pretty obvious from the costumes and comedic lines that it was a modern adaptation but I didn’t see the whole “the environment has collapsed in the near future” thing until I later read about it in the program. To be fair, I was seated towards the side of the stage so perhaps I just couldn’t see the whole picture properly.
Despite the productions’ attempts at livening things up and shortened lines, I do want to stress that this production is not targeted towards kids. Macbeth is still a wordy play and the child I brought with me said that while she liked some of “the creepy parts,” she still felt like dozing off sometimes.
Nevertheless, Macbeth: Walking Shadows is an outstanding, fresh take on a Shakespearean classic, its polish made more impressive when considering the constraints of performing in a public space.
- Macbeth: Walking Shadows is playing until August 30th at Withrow Park (725 Logan Ave).
- Shows run Monday to Sunday (no Tuesdays) from 7:30PM (includes pre-show music) to 9:30 PM.
- Ticket are Pay What You Can with a recommended donation of $15. Cash only. You can purchase tickets in advance at Brown Paper Tickets to reserve a chair.
- This is an outdoor show. Please check their Facebook or Twitter for nightly updates.
- Children and puppies are welcome at the show, though it is intended for a mature audience.
Photo of Andrew Joseph Richardson and Alexander Crowther with puppets by Zach Fraser by Karl Ang.