26733601_1715420295177290_6872068117409842792_nThe question of Shakespeare’s continued relevance in the modern world is an inquiry that never fully quiets. After all, so much has changed across four centuries since William Shakespeare penned Macbeth in 1606-07. However, Macbeth reminds us how strikingly little has changed when it comes to confronting those in power. We witness a country’s leader go rogue and continually one-up his docket of crimes while those around him fail to speak out, and even in that description, is the play or the present being referenced? The answer is both. Shakespeare holds the complacent accountable as their silence fuels the unchecked growth of Macbeth’s menacing power, yet his power instills fear as it is built on shutting down those who threaten him.

Such are the meaty issues that Duquesne University’s Red Masquers must wrestle with in their highly relevant production of Macbeth. Productions often center on Lady Macbeth as the mastermind, reducing Macbeth to a sort of puppet. In the quest for relevancy, director Dora Farona wisely puts the ever-spiraling Macbeth at the center of this production. His murder of the king, a chess move that results in his own ascension to the throne, proves to be not an inhibiting source of horror, but the first domino in a stream of evil crimes. While the focus on Macbeth is a thoughtful choice, Nathaniel Yost’s Macbeth is not fully up to the challenge. You rarely forget it’s Yost as there is a self-conscious quality to his Macbeth that inhibits the character’s believability. He struggles to achieve the harder edges this Macbeth demands. Beyond Yost, consistency of performance quality is a broader issue within the show. While consistency challenges are not uncommon in college productions, it certainly doesn’t enhance the audience experience.

The tone of the play changes, and the audience is clearly most engaged when the play’s three commanding witches (Sadie Crow, Lauren Gardonis and Katelyn Donnelly) are onstage. The trio works well together, none overshadowing the others. Yost’s performance draws from them and is strongest in their presence. He eagerly seeks them out, using their prophecies and interpreting their veiled references to support the evil he already wants to do. They become his political advisors and the executors of his devious plans, both literally and metaphorically. Farona chooses to set the production at the close of the transformative Victorian era, and costume designer Kim Brown supports the period’s look in her designs. The lone exception is the witches who wear vampy black lace dresses that read showgirl sexy with a twist of goth.

Brown’s Victorian costumes are best exhibited with Lady Macbeth (Dana Demsko) who wears all black or all white in each of her scenes. We first see her in a ruffled, ankle-length black hoop dress with wide sleeves where she tucks away a letter from Macbeth. Demsko struggles with committing to a portrayal of Lady Macbeth who ends up seeming a bit scattered. She’s lashing out at her husband one moment and fainting the next. In ensemble scenes where she’s not speaking, Demsko’s Lady Macbeth is quietly tuned in, and you can see her observing and calibrating the room’s mood. When the ghost of the slaughtered Banquo (Max Begler) haunts Macbeth at a banquet, Demsko is at her best. She exhibits the tensions of a nervous wife working to excuse her husband’s odd behaviors while also playing the role of charming hostess in trying to distract her guests and ensure their happiness.

John E. Lane Jr.’s set design is memorably impactful. The wooden set has stairs that switchback up to an elevated, railing-rimmed balcony. Lady Macbeth often speaks and looks down on her domestic sphere from the balcony, which also makes literal the eventual dead end of Macbeth and his schemes. The set extends out to the floor, which is covered with a red brick pattern. Lane creates tension by darkening some of the bricks to define a winding walkway through the center. At the play’s start, the wooden set is tilted. It’s already a world off center, and the darkened walkway spills from the corner of the set, foreshadowing the stain of spilled blood to come. Lane’s set spins and visually enhances the play’s sinister twists, but it is clearly heavy and proves cumbersome. Additional crewmembers to help move it more efficiently between scene changes would reduce choppiness and enhance the play’s flow.

The opening scene concludes with the three witches chanting, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” While the play ends with Macduff (Eric Matthews) vanquishing Macbeth in a well-choreographed swordfight (also by Eric Mathews), Macbeth’s reign has literally gutted much of the next generation of Scotland’s royal leaders. Foul does seem to be fair, a leadership legacy that’s as troubling today as it was then.

Duquesne University’s production of Macbeth continues through February 25th at the Genesius Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Red Masquers online.

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