"Double, double toil and trouble;/Fire, burn; and, caldron, bubble."
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is presenting Macbeth through Dec. 2 at Howard County Center for the Arts.
In the public mind, the three witches have almost become comic characters. Stirring their steaming brew and chanting their imprecations, they are ideal subjects for comedy sketches and magazine cartoons, not to mention informal gags at the kitchen range.
But if an audience can immerse itself in the idea that people in Shakespeare's dark, savage Scotland believe seriously in mystic forces that can shape their lives and forecast their destinies, the play will unfold in all its power.
Macbeth is the central victim of these forces. We see him and a fellow general, Banquo, returning with honor from a battle in which they defeated a rebellion against their king, Duncan.
The witches, whom they come upon unexpectedly, make unsettling predictions about Macbeth's future. The first hails him as Thane of Glamis. That makes sense; it is Macbeth's title.
The second hails him as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth wonders how this can be. He knows Cawdor; the man is alive and well.
The third witch proclaims that Macbeth will be king.
Unlikely as they are, Macbeth cannot put these predictions out of his mind. Already he is acting deceitfully, pretending to Banquo that he does not take the witches' words seriously.
Then the king, discovering Cawdor to be a traitor, transfers his lands and title to Macbeth as a reward for his service.
Two out of three! And only one old man between Macbeth and the throne! Evil ambition is born in his heart.
Seeing clearly what horrors he could unleash, he is inclined to suppress his impulses, to draw back from doing anything rash.
But his wife, Lady Macbeth, is ambitious too -- and practical. It is simple, she says. Just do it.
Together they plot to murder Duncan in his sleep and put the blame on his attendants. The plan succeeds, and Macbeth becomes king.
Although horrified at what he has done, he cannot turn back.
More murders are needed to solidify his position. Encouraged by further predictions by the witches (which turn out to be deceptive), he pursues his evil course. Inevitably his bloody deeds catch up with him.
In this production, Scott Alan Small is a forceful Macbeth. Lesley Malin plays Lady Macbeth, not as a heartless shrew but as a woman ambitious for her husband, urging him on, now in an insinuating tone, now in a scolding one.
Others in the huge cast include Wayne Willinger (Banquo), Charlie Mitchell (Macduff), Tami Moon (Lady Macduff), Frank B. Moorman (Duncan), Vince Eisenson (Malcolm) and Frank Mancino (Lennox).
Ian Gallanar provides his customary able direction, making a few cuts in the script and dropping several characters. In a program note, he says he decided to mount a straightforward production, with no directorial flights of fancy. His performers turn in performances appropriate to this plan.
Some of them, unfortunately, speak so rapidly and indistinctly that many of their words are lost. Shakespeare's poetic images and ruminations, couched in the language of 400 years ago, are often hard to grasp. The audience needs to comprehend every syllable.
The witches (Jenny Leopold, Jenny Crooks, Lorraine Imwold) and their chief Hecate (Santina Maiolatesi) deserve mention for their clear enunciation. In this production, they are not the usual old crones but seductive young women, given to sinuous, choreographed movements. Hecate, in addition, displays a good singing voice.
Designer Laura Ridgeway gives them colorful, picturesque costumes reminiscent of the Gypsy style. By contrast, most of the Scottish noblemen and officers are dressed in a drab mixture of contemporary and archaic garments.
This gives the production a timeless, universal air, but the sameness of the costumes makes it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad, and hard even to identify some of the individual characters.
The action is effectively played against an austere set consisting of a few pillars. Gallanar's sound effects -- soft drums, subtle music -- create an appropriately sinister atmosphere, and his special effects -- Banquo's ghost materializes, and so do some other apparitions -- are nicely managed.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents Macbeth at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 2 at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Reservations: 866-811-4111 or www.ches apeakeshakespeare.com.