The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Macbeth will make your heart pound, and not just when Macbeth wields bloody daggers after murdering Duncan, or when Banquo rises, eerily, from the dead.
Like other CSC productions, Macbeth is staged at the skeletal ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, set on an appropriately spooky Ellicott City hilltop.
But this time, instead of sitting on folding chairs, the audience walks up and down stairs, climbs hills, peers through darkness, moves from one unheated roofless room to the other, and stands outside for much of the performance.
"We think of this as eavesdropping on the Macbeths," artistic director Ian Gallanar told members of the audience before the show began.
It's a neat idea, and one particularly suited to this ghost-filled, pre-Halloween production and its spooky setting. The logistics have been carefully thought out, and as the audience is guided from one setting to another, marketing director Rebecca Ellis leads the way, saying things like "Let's go see what Lady Macbeth is doing now."
But a little restraint would have gone a long way. Instead of changing locations a dozen or so times, the audience might have been better served with just two or three scene changes. Each shift in location takes more than a few minutes and requires audience members to find new places to stand or sit so they can see the action.
Though some rooms have chairs, and one outside scene offers picnic tables so audience members can feel as if they're part of a celebratory feast, the production, at 2 1/2 hours, requires a lot of standing time and stamina. And when the scenes move out into the dark night, following the action of characters dressed in dark clothing can be challenging at best.
The fine acting all around, particularly by Lesley Malin as Lady Macbeth and Scott Alan Small as the ambitious Macbeth, may make you forget about tired feet and the chilly October night. When Macbeth returns to his wife carrying blood-soaked daggers after murdering Duncan, the king of Scotland, the adrenaline and tension are palpable.
"I have done the deed," Macbeth confides, barely able to believe it himself.
The affection between the scheming Macbeth and his equally ambitious wife is also palpable, and when he calls her "my dearest love" his words contain an implied caress. Later, when she tells her husband to "screw your courage to the sticking place, and we will not fail," we can see him gaining quiet confidence from his beloved's words.
One centerpiece of "the Scottish play," as it is known, is the great banquet scene in which Macbeth, riddled with guilt and sinking into madness, sees Banquo rise from the dead after Macbeth arranged for his murder.
The company stages the banquet at outdoor picnic tables, even asking a member of the audience to pour wine into the newly crowned king's goblet. When Banquo, played by Colby Codding, emerges from the shadows with blood on his forehead, a frozen smile on his face and a blank look in his eyes, Macbeth's first reaction is to find someone other than himself to blame.
"Who has done this?" he asks, terrified, then speaks directly to Banquo: "Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me."
Like all Shakespeare productions, CSC's Macbeth is best appreciated by people who are familiar with the play. But the excellent acting brings all the terror, raw ambition and scheming of the play alive, even to those who are new to it.
Plus, it may be the only production of Macbeth that gives your body and your mind a workout.
Performances are at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 26. Tickets are $25; $22 for senior citizens. 866-811-4111.