Scotland, Pa directed by Lonny Price, with book by Michael Mitnick and music and lyrics by Adam Gwon is a rollicking musical with clever twists, sardonic comedy and a morality tale tucked somewhere in between the all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on three sumptuous brioche buns. Well, perhaps I got carried away with the bun concept. Adapted from the film of the same title by Billy Morrissette which was produced by Richard Shepard, Jon Stern and Abandon Pictures, Scotland, Pa the musical, currently running at Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is a take-off of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There are even three stoner witches whose marijuana-toking hallucinations serve as the powder-keg to turn sweet protagonist Mac into a reprobate rapscallion.
Like the film the musical loosely reconfigures the “Scottish Play’s” key characterizations, plot and themes against the backdrop of a sleepy town Scotland, Pennsylvania hamburger joint. Nothing ever happens there, and no one anticipates that in a decade outsourcing and Reganomics will destroy unions, winnow high paying factory jobs and attenuate American workers’ pay checks making the situation in Scotland, PA even worse.
For in this backwater of Pennsylvania, the economy is already rust belt before outsourcing vanishes the nation’s industries. There is little opportunity for high school graduates except working at fast food hamburger joint Duncan’s owned by Duncan (a humorously overweening Jeb Brown). Duncan (unlike King Duncan in Shakespeare’s Macbeth) is a horrible boss, penurious, abusive and greedy. He shortchanges and mistreats his workers, just like the corporate CEOs today. That is about the most forward thinking thinking that Duncan accomplishes for his business where he is slothfully satisfied to dump on Mac (Ryan MCartan) Pat (Taylor Iman Jones) and their friend Banko (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and keep any and all profits for himself. A poor businessman, he will not reinvest or motivate his workers to help his business expand.
Mac who is electrified by the business angle of fast food restaurants presents amazing ideas to Duncan who rejects them out of hand deeming Mac’s ideas dumb. Humorously, the ideas are famously brilliant having been implemented in Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s years later. Duncan’s arrogant stomping out Mac’s intellectual smarts, ambition and concern to accelerate Duncan’s bottom line reveals the “CEO’s” vapid bone lazy idiocy.
Beyond frustrated, Mac spurred on by ambitious Pat comes up with an incredible idea and presents it to Duncan who once again demeans and tortures Mac with insults. As a final “hurrah of hope” Mac proves that the manager is stealing, believing that Duncan will reward him with a raise and the managerial position. Instead, Duncan gives his uninterested son Malcolm (Will Meyers brings down the house in his song “reveal”) the manager’s position. Malcolm who would rather play football rejects his father’s offer and leaves when Duncan tries to teach him the business.
Throughout, hippie stoners Jessie (Alysha Umphress) Stacey (Wonu Ogunfowora) and Hector (Kaleb Wells) sing about the town and Mac’s situation and effect the wicked transition in Mac and Pat’s destiny toward doom. In an argument with Mac, Duncan ends up falling head first into the hot oil of the fryer, an incident which just skirts manslaughter. What prompted this? Duncan catches Mac and Pat stealing and their guilt prompts them to struggle against Duncan though his death is largely accidental. But crime begets crime: in the commission of their theft, Duncan dies, they pin Duncan’s death on someone else and use Duncan’s money to buy out Duncan’s from his son. As Mac and Pat step deeper and deeper into the evil foretold and instigated by the witches, the musical progresses toward more twists, an investigation and scramble to hide the truth in an ironic, black comedy conclusion which is also poignant.
The surprises are many and the jokes are uproarious. The musical numbers are well staged and equally riotous and energetic. As Mac, Ryan McCartan is not only an adorable innocent turned miscreant, his vocals are smashing and his authenticity is spot-on in a role that one could make ineffectively campy which would have been a mistake. McCartan shines and we find ourselves empathizing with him as he stands up to detective Peg McDuff (the suspicious, inquisitive Megan Lawrence) and deflects her investigatory skills. Likewise, Taylor Iman Jones portrays wife Pat with sincerity and her voice is gorgeous. How can he not be loyal to her dreams and wishes though they include malfeasance?
Driven to seek a better life upward from their poverty, Pat motivates Mac toward with conniving subtly. The witches’ provocations spin and contort so that benign dreams morph into the nefarious and damaging, first with stealing the cash in Duncan’s safe then with manslaughter, then a cover-up murder. The crime dominoes fall and Pat is always there to “screw Mac’s courage to the sticking place,” as they enjoyably couple to commit even more dastardly deeds.
How Mitnik and Gwon transform a well-meaning, average, lower middle class husband and wife into thieves and murderers is humorous with all the stops removed. On the one hand, Jeb Brown’s Duncan is so loathsome, we are not surprised at the comeuppance he gets. His mistreatment of his workers, abuse of his son and arrogant insults and rotten demeanor drain all our sympathy upon his death. However, the black comedy deepens when investigator Peg McDuff comes upon the scene. Fear of discovery and the need to cover-up become the linchpins that send the “well-meaning” capitalists Mac and Pat right into hell with betrayal, murder and suicide.
As their friend and foil Banko, Jay Armstrong Johnson is flat out marvelous in the role of the lame-brained, stoned out hippie who can’t get out of his own way. And Armstrong can do more than carry a tune; he has a show stopper number to boot. As with the others in the ensemble, his vocal power is prime. The surprise in his characterization occurs when he reveals he is more sentient than we imagine and actually is a threat to his two friends in blowing apart their alibi.
The arc of development moves toward a swift conclusion and the “bedazzled by wickedness” Mac fulfills the prophecy of the witches, despite himself. We are left with the themes: “the love of money is the root of evil,” “crime begets cover-up and more crime,” “overweening, unrestrained ambition destroys.” Each are their own moral lessons. At least in this bucolic town, ethics still abide and “crime doesn’t pay,” after all. Of course that is because Peg McDuff believes in serving justice, not serving herself or any corrupt cronies, unlike our present times. In this the play’s small town folkways and ethics are charming reminders of the past. Oh how long ago and far away this America was!
Scotland, PA remains a lovable, smash hit worthy of seeing a few times for its sardonic humor and the ensembles’ masterful delivery of clever humor and pacing to full effect. The songs are not earth-shattering in meaning, but they are tuneful and effervescent. Everyone in the cast from the three stoner witches to Peg McDuff are focused. Their portrayals have been well shepherded by Lonny Price’s incisive, thoughtful direction.
Set design elements thanks to Anna Louizos are funny in the transformation between the Duncan’s of Act I to the spoofing of the real Ray Kroc and McDonald’s in Act II. From the thunderous lightning cracks to additional lighting elements created by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and accompanying sound design elements by Jon Weston, Scotland, PA’s tenor, mood and irony shift and change providing a fabulous medium to stir the actors to hit their marks! Likewise, costume design by Tracy Christensen and hair, wig & make-up design by J. Jared Janas combine elements of the modern and throwbacks to the 1970s. I loved the look of the witches. And the restaurant outfits in Act 2 are a hoot!
Music Direction by Vadim Feichtner, orchestrations by Frank Galgano & Matt Castle and choreography by Josh Rhodes help to make this a great entertainment. Bravo once and bravo twice for good measure to the creative team, Lonny Price and the ensemble of Scotland, PA.
The production runs with one intermission until 8th December at Roundabout, Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th St). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Macbeth directed by John Doyle currently runs at Classic Stage Company. The production is minimalistic. It is stylized toward removing any extraneous feature that would slow down the race toward the conclusion of one of the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. The production clocks in at a slim 90 minutes with no intermission, few props, the barest scenic design, no bulky Byzantine elements or interpretations. It eschews the spectacle, sturm und drang of previous maverick, heavy-handed iterations of Macbeth that have come to New York- Broadway, Lincoln Center or Off Broadway stages in recent years or have been presented at the Armory. Only the costumes whisper Scotland with each of the actors sporting a plaid tartan shawl and appropriate dress.
For those very familiar with the “Scottish Play,” this spare production will be fascinating. Its emphasis resides in the fine performances of Corey Stoll as Macbeth, his partner Nadia Bowers as Lady Macbeth, Eric Lochtefeld as Banquo and the adroit ensemble. For those unfamiliar with Macbeth who are looking to become more acquainted with the play that has superstitious actors refusing to speak the title anywhere near a theater stage, this is not the production to see. Better to see a film version to get a handle on the plot, characterizations and themes before you stop in to see the CSC production. Then you will be able to understand and appreciate Doyle’s direction that concentrates on the grist of Shakespeare’s arc of development and characterizations, especially of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
There are many fine films of Macbeth; one directed by and starring Orsen Welles (1948); Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) and most recently an incredibly visual and cinematic Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender directed by Justin Kurzel (2015). There is even a sardonic, comedic take-off on Macbeth (Scotland, PA, a film-2001) and the Off Broadway comedic musical adapted from the 2001 film currently running at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
Knowing the play as well as I do, I had little difficulty in appreciating the singularity of the performances and the rapid pacing of the events which fall in on themselves from scene to scene like dominoes. The pacing is important thematically and reveals much as an expression which manifests characterization. We, like Macbeth, are often hurled into a whirlwind of rapidly cascading events that occur around us, forged by those in power. Indeed, we barely have time to consider what is happening to take stock of circumstances. Instead, we must make quick deliberations and because of the speed, often make bad choices. This conceptualization pertains to this pared down production in the characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.
In Doyle’s version we note Macbeth, a Scottish general who is driven on a course of loyalty to king Duncan to be valorous in battle. Stirred up by the voices of the culture (represented by a chorus of players who recite the dialogue of the three witches) to extend his ambitions in competition with Banquo, both generals receive a prophecy. Each encourages the other to believe what the chorus of witches speaks in their incantations. The prophecy concerns Macbeth becoming king and Banquo’s heirs becoming kings and ruling the kingdom for generations. Banquo’s and Macbeth’s imaginations ripen without prayer or meditation to become obsessed with their futures. Macbeth, rather than to consider that the chorus of witches may be evil, shares the “news” with Lady Macbeth who leaps to the assassination plot of killing Duncan who will stay at their castle.
The events pick up speed, unhindered by Macbeth’s doubt or unsettled nervousness because Lady Macbeth moves without delay to influence him to kill Duncan and murder the guards in retribution, laying blame on Duncan’s sons who flee. Macbeth assumes the throne without question, then with growing fear and paranoia betrays his friend Banquo and has him killed. When Macbeth attempts to be a proper statesman and ruler holding a banquet for his Lords to ingratiate himself to them, Banquo’s ghost appears upending Macbeth’s peace of mind, rest and attempted diplomacy. Afterward, confusion and mania escalates into psychotic paranoia and guilt. Macbeth’s seemingly unstoppable reign of tyranny and civil war grows in ferocity and wickedness toward an inevitable and swift conclusion.
Indeed, Doyle reveals an aspect of Macbeth not typically focused upon. Events unfold like a storm for which no preparation can be made. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are largely transactional. Their motivations overwhelm them without thoughtful consideration. These upend them so quickly they leave no time to check themselves and consider what the consequences of their dishonorable actions will foment. Rationality leaks into insanity. It is as if Macbeth has allowed himself to be submerged underwater and is drowning in his own bloody imagination and frenzied blood-letting. This happens so rapidly and so smothers him and Lady Macbeth in guilt, he cannot breathe or rest easily once they’ve murdered their king and usurped his power. After the regicide, they are incapable of ruling wisely or well. They are consumed with maintaining the power they don’t understand and cannot keep because they are illegitimate and unfit.
Regicide drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to devastating guilt. But they are incapable of seeking redemption from an ocean of blood that stains their minds and hearts and propels them toward masochistic betrayals of themselves and each other in infamous deaths. For Lady Macbeth it is suicide which Macbeth does not have the time to mourn. For Macbeth it is arrogance that leads to his downfall in not making the proper alignments to keep the throne or recognize that he is not immortal as the chorus of witches have duped him to believing. The vortex does not stop spinning until Macbeth comes up for air, as it were, and dies. He is killed by McDuff who was “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb” a fulfillment of the prophecy that Macbeth will be killed by one “not born of woman.”
The pared down version eliminates various characters and scenes, some comedic, some ironic and foreshadowing. The platform stage acting area allows for the audience to sit on three sides. Toward the back of the playing area is the focal point of the production, the throne and seat of power. The rustic, wooden throne’s placement at the end of the platform allows for a “theater in the round” effect.”
The audience becomes immediately engaged with the heightened action of Macbeth’s obsession with the throne and what that means for himself and the country. The only way to gain the modest-looking, oversized wooden chair is by usurping power illegitimately through regicide. That is easy. But to maintain his illegitimacy, he must use the weapons of tyranny, brutality, murderous betrayal of Banquo and destruction of his country. His guilt knowing he is not a true king makes his paranoia and psychosis all the more explosive. Thus, against the country he wishes to govern, ironically, he instigates civil war to protect what he never deserved and was never truly his, the throne of Scotland. What Macbeth and many leaders who lust for power never understand is that powerful men serve others first. Power means acute responsibility to govern over all the people, not just the sycophants and toadies. To be powerful, one must be, like Duncan revealed beneficent and just. Macbeth proves what a king isn’t. His lust for the throne is a tragedy.
One of the themes of the minimalistic design and but vibrant staging is that whomever sits in the throne chair takes the power of the position. Whether they realize it or not, it is assumed they understand power. Initially, we see Duncan (Mary Beth Peil) resting easily in this power as the King gives commands and bestows honors with legitimate authority and probity It is a dangerous “game for the throne” which Macbeth initiates stirred by the cultural “witchy” voices of the time that emphasize ambition and position without achievement, without grace and without ethics and honor to perform the hard work to deservedly wait for the possibility of becoming king through divine means. Macbeth cannot wait. Lady Macbeth will not wait. They lift their will above Scotland and God and reap the requisite fate.
Duncan’s success in war indicates his wisdom. When the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, (the title position Duncan awards Macbeth for his valor) repents his treachery to Duncan and is forgiven, but must suffer the consequences, we understand Duncan’s worthiness and justice as a beneficent ruler. Macbeth’s hasty leap to steal what he can never fulfill is all the more wicked and horrifying for Scotland. Sadly, Macbeth, instead of learning from the Thane of Cawdor’s behavior and repentance, thinks nothing of it. Too much the transactional man of action, imbalanced and not given to thoughtful consideration, his end is manifest the moment he takes on the mantle of Thane of Cawdor. Unlike the Thane, Macbeth never humbly repents and admits what he has done.
This production is revelatory and acute. The performances by Stoll, Bowers, Lochtefeld and Peil are resonant. They and Doyle’s direction elucidate important themes for our times about power, leadership, justice, illegitimacy, unfitness, accountability. The ensemble work is seasoned. Macbeth runs at CSC (East 13th Street between 3rd and Madison) until 15th December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.