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Artists, story nearly upstaged by visual effects in otherwise haunting ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Lady Macbeth (Chaon Cross) ascend to power, observed by the Weird Sisters (McKinley Carter, Emily Ann Nichelson, and Theo Germaine) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of "Macbeth." , | Liz Lauren

The spirit-filled and spirited Chicago Shakespeare production of “Macbeth” — directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (yes, of Penn and Teller) — is a tale told by a couple of genuinely clever adaptor/directors, filled with percussive sound and fierce effects, not particularly focused on its signifying.

Stars: ★★★
When: Through June 24
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
Tickets: $48-$88
Info: chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

This is a spooky staging of the tragedy, where the weird sisters — otherwise known as the witches — unendingly stalk Macbeth and his Lady and create a haunting background score by singing creepy-but-melodic high whines. Ghoulish heads emerge from the bubbling cauldron to provide their problematic prophecies. When Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) asks, “Is that a dagger that appears before me…?,” a dagger is indeed appearing before him, clean one moment and bloody the next.

It does work, and overall this is an engaging and coherent concept: Shakespearean tragedy as horror movie, with a great modern look and feel.
But as the title character himself learns in the story of a warrior who grasps a declared kingly destiny that doesn’t turn out as he thought, there’s a price to pay for ambition.

The stimulation of the visual effects — and the on-stage drums, and the singing, and even some fab fashion — can distract from the human players. Peakes and Chaon Cross (as Lady Macbeth) are very strong performers, who contribute traditional and solid depictions of their characters, but they are armed only with iambic pentameter to compete with the addictive jolts of theme-park-like theatricality. That dagger? It appears in an upstage mirror, and Peakes’ talking to it while trying to talk to the audience at the same time is about the most literal example you’ll ever see of an actor being “upstaged.”

In this version, at the curtain call the witches get applause as loud, if not louder, than the leads. If the dagger and other cool effects could bow, the response would likely be louder still.

Lady Macbeth (Chaon Cross) is taunted by the unseen Weird Sisters (from left: Theo Germaine, McKinley Carter, Emily Ann Nichelson) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Macbeth,” adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. | Photo by Liz Lauren.

This sense of watching actors compete with the spectacle didn’t arise in Posner and Teller’s previous effort together, a terrific production of “The Tempest” seen at Chicago Shakespeare in 2015. In that show, the magic — and sense of the magical — enhanced and helped us understand the action and even the genre, that post-Elizabethan mixed form called the Romance, where supernatural forces prod tragedy into happy endings.

As with “The Tempest,” Posner and Teller effectively use stylish visuals, including illusions, to create an atmosphere — in this case a dark, foreboding, scary world. But in the tragedy “Macbeth,” they interrupt and overwhelm the story a bit. The dagger, for example, commands our whole attention away from Macbeth’s trying to make a choice of whether or not to kill the King who has been promoting him and is asleep in his own home. Think about that: It’s the choice that will drive the rest of the action for about two more hours, and it’s not the focus.

As another example, we can choose the famous moment when Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking and tortured by guilt and paranoia, declares “Out, damn spot!” Rather than focusing on the complex mental war she is having with herself, we’re focused on the supply of fake blood that covers her while she speaks. It was a good idea, but the sacrifice is significant.

Still, there’s a lot, even beyond the illusions by Johnny Thompson, to like here, including elements of the direction and much of the design. The characters freeze and Thom Weaver’s lighting design has a spotlight suddenly pop onto Macbeth when he talks directly to the audience, an effective variation on the traditional soliloquy. The three doors, red amidst the mostly black stage in Daniel Conway’s set design, include grated view-holes through which the faces of would-be murderers appear to give us a slasher-movie thrill. The onstage drummer, on a platform above the playing space, injects a constant adrenaline into the proceedings with Andre Pluess’ music and sound design.

Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld dresses the Scottish warriors in solid gray kilts and black leather, and together with the gleaming metal sword accessories, the fashion would be current at a high-end runway show. Even when blood flows, and it does often, it’s a smart splash of color. And those witches! They’ve got an otherworldly, magazine cover look, as if the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” got a smokey-eye makeover gone mad.

It’s all super chic, but if you are wondering whether or not guys should wear more kilts or whether raccoons are a good model for makeup — are you really caught up in the action?

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.

Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) weighs the cost of his ambition, shadowed by the spirits of the Weird Sisters in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Macbeth.” | Liz Lauren