Clarity of language and storytelling in Shakespeare Downtown’s ‘Macbeth’ at NYC’s Castle Clinton

Now presenting its eighth free outdoor production at Battery Park’s historic Castle Clinton National Monument since June 2016, Shakespeare Downtown, founded by Artistic Director Billie Andersson and Director Geoffrey Horne, offers everyone access to the classics of the stage in an open-air, in-the-round, waterside venue reminiscent of the experience audiences would have had at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. The company’s latest show, playing a limited engagement through June 23, is Macbeth, The Bard’s iconic 1606 tragedy of ambition, hubris, and power, and the betrayals, murders, guilt, and ascendancies that ensue, as foretold by the Weird Sisters (a trio of prognosticating witches), with a smartly reimagined ending that most accurately fulfills their prophecy.

Craig Braun (center) with Marco Villard, Zack Ignoffo, and Alfredo Diaz. Photo by Amy Goossens.

Set in 11th-century Scotland, the readily comprehensible and concise production, co-directed by Horne and his former student, stage and screen star Alec Baldwin, follows the rise and fall of the doomed titular character with minimal set and props (an antique table and chairs that only appear in a few scenes to identify a shift in locales; the bloody daggers and swords that are integral to the murderous plot), relying on a rich array of historicizing costumes (set and costume design by Amy Goossens), the clarity of the actors’ delivery of Shakespeare’s language and the human psychology that drives them, active blocking that keeps them moving around the mostly bare platform stage (situated at one end of the building’s unroofed space), with entries and exits through the center aisle of the audience that make for an intimate up-close experience.

Richard-John Seikaly (center) with Billie Andersson and Alfredo Diaz. Photo by Deb Miller.

Under the well-modulated direction, Alfredo Diaz as the conflicted Macbeth and Andersson as the controlling Lady Macbeth lead a supporting cast and ensemble of eighteen, avoiding the histrionics of over-the-top madness in favor of more understated embodiments of their plotting minds and ultimately unhinged recognition of their culpability, causing visions of the ghost of his fellow general, former friend, and victim Banquo – played with compelling strength and insight by the outstanding Richard-John Seikaly – the blood on her hands that she can’t wash away, her disturbed sleepwalking, and suicide to escape the deeds that haunt her, all of which are registered in their telling facial expressions, body language, and gestures.

Billie Andersson. Photo by Ray Costello.

As the witches, Jazz-Ella Reveilleau, Scarlett Strasberg, and Jade India Kelly move in circles (choreography by Carlos Fittante), chant their incantations, mime the ingredients of their magic potions (leaving us to imagine their unseen cauldron), and present their ambiguous portents to the credulous Macbeth. Craig Braun makes a commanding and beneficent King Duncan, who promotes Macbeth to Thane of Cawdor for his valiant victories on the battlefield, visits him and his wife at their castle, and is all too trusting of them, becoming the unsuspecting target of their planned regicide. Evan Olson appears in multiple roles, including the drunken porter who delivers the original knock-knock jokes and adds a touch of physical comedy with his pratfall, while Gjermund Gjesme brings believable anguish to his portrayal of Macduff, shocked upon discovering the body of the slaughtered Duncan, devastated by the brutal murders of his own wife and children, and determined to exact revenge on Macbeth, who was responsible for them. And Bryce Washington as Banquo’s son Fleance frantically flees an attempt on his life and later returns, here assuming an appropriately regal air.

Gjermund Gjesme. Photo by Ray Costello.

Rounding out the company are Ramiro Batista, Rickard Claeson, Chase Erwin, Monte Greene, Zack Ignoffo, Sarah Anne Long, Alexander Thomas, Juan Pablo Toro, Chantal Van Zyl, and Marco Villard, each capturing the significance of their characters to the advancement of the story and contributing to the comprehensibility of the narrative. The performances are enhanced with clear sound and transporting sound effects by Carlos Ponce.

Shakespeare Downtown’s focused and engaging production of Macbeth provides a welcome opportunity for aficionados to revisit one of the playwright’s greatest works and for those who’ve never seen it to follow along easily with its many characters, full content, and universal message of the inescapable guilt and dire consequences of unbridled ambition and the unconscionable acts done to achieve it. Kudos to the company for making the classic accessible to all.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.

Macbeth plays through Sunday, June 23, 2024, at Shakespeare Downtown, performing at Castle Clinton National Monument, Battery Park, 26 Wall Street, NYC. Tickets are free and available at the door, beginning at 5:45 pm on the day of the performance.


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