ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - Audience reactions to the Washington Shakespeare Company's "Macbeth" are telling.
Folks in the front sometimes cringe and move back a few rows during intermission. One man watched the play with a program in front of his eyes, blocking out the lower half of his field of vision.
Clearly, an all-nude production of the Shakespearean tragedy is not for everyone.
Despite mixed reviews, the play has drawn healthy audiences to the small theatre company's playhouse in Northern Virginia, and the director and cast say the production is fulfilling its artistic vision: exposing the primal nature of man's ambitions and fears.
The play's director, Jose Carrasquillo, said he was inspired to create a radically different visual presentation after reading the same histories of the Scottish people that Shakespeare is believed to have read before writing Macbeth. They described "a really tribal, almost animal-like clan and society," Carrasquillo said. "I thought it would be amazing to do a show with this feel in mind."
Then he focused on the three witches who open the play. Carrasquillo envisioned them as conjurers who actually bring the players in "Macbeth" to life. So in his version, the actors begin on stage as trees and come to life, naked and dirty, only after the witches make it so.
At no point are any of the actors covered, except for some mudlike makeup on their bodies. And all 10 performers remain on stage for the entire performance. The three witches, for example, crouch and scour and watch the action from the sidelines of the bare triangular stage, hissing their approval as the plot moves toward the vision they have foretold.
Cast members say the audience response has varied from performance to performance. Kathleen Akerley, who plays Lady Macbeth, said the audience has been much more willing to volunteer its opinions, both positive and negative.
"It's been a really fascinating phenomenon," Akerley said. Almost always, audience members will say they quickly got used to the nudity. But she suspects that while some people acclimate themselves, others merely block it out of their minds, which to a certain extent blunts its intended impact.
An especially telling scene - in terms of audience reaction - occurs in the second act, when a drunken porter pointedly refers to alcohol's effect on lechery and sexual arousal. The humorous scene evokes laughter from some audiences and uncomfortable silence from others, said Sasha Olinick, who portrays the porter.
"It forces (the audience) to recognize that your own mores, your own values come into play," Olinick said.
There was some initial apprehension on Opening Night, Akerley said, when a few men arrived alone and early, muttering to themselves. But leering reactions have been a rarity.
"The nudity in this play is not at all sexual or titillating," said Heather Haney, who plays one of the witches. "It's about being completely human."
Akerley acknowledged some initial reservations about performing in the nude.
"I was clinging to vanity. I didn't want to look unattractive," she said.
But the actors said the fact that they were all in it together, including frequent rehearsals in the buff to become comfortable with the concept - helped develop a sense of camaraderie.
"We had to support each other," said Daniel Eichner who plays Macbeth. "It really feels to me like a true ensemble performance."
While Shakespeare has been subject to innumerable interpretations and nudity is far from uncommon in theatre, an all-nude production by a serious Shakespeare company is a rarity. Most reviews have not been favourable, particularly about the nudity. The Washington Post wrote that the lack of clothing lent an indistinguishable quality to the characters.
"Clothes remain primary signifiers of an individual's place in a culture, so once apparel is cast aside, social boundaries become less clear," reviewer Celia Wren wrote.
The theatre's artistic director, Christopher Henley, who also plays both Duncan and Macduff, said criticism was not unexpected in Washington, which he said is a theatrically conservative town.
While the 106-seat playhouse is fuller than it has been in several years, Henman said there have also been more intermission walkouts than before.
"That's what happens when you take chances," Henley said.
The production had been scheduled to conclude July 15, but it has been extended for another week.
"Macbeth" is bringing to a close a six-month Shakespeare festival in Washington that has seen a variety of experimentation by multiple theatre companies.
In one, Macbeth was performed entirely in Tlingit, an American Indian language unique to southeast Alaska and Canada and spoken fluently by fewer than 300 people. At the Kennedy centre, the New York-based Tiny Ninja Theater used inch-high toy ninjas and a large projection screen to retell Hamlet.
To me, if a director has a creative vision in presenting one of Shakespeare's play, as long as the story (or the ending) is not changed, they should go for it. There are only so many times you can show Macbeth with the actors wearing tights and carrying swords.