It’s not a new idea: updating a Shakespearean classic for a modern audience. A change in setting and style can make the language more accessible to our lazy ears. And so it is with Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s current production of Maccountant, playing Sept. 3, 8-10, and 15-17 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham.
Director-adapter Jaybird O’Berski has brought Macbeth a long way — from the foggy forests of 11th century Scotland — to an accounting firm in Wichita, Kansas in the year 1963 (a less-glamorous Mad Men). There is certainly an audience for this world premiere: Thursday night’s preview was standing-room-only, and the house was jumping.
In O’Berski’s version, Macbeth (played by Dan Oliver) is more Willy Loman than William Wallace. He’s a struggling accountant overlooked for a big promotion. When a trio of bizarre cleaning ladies tell him that he will one day be regional manager of the firm, a series of events is set in motion with dire consequences. Sound familiar?
Maccountant has all of the themes of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy: unchecked ambition, fate vs. free will, political corruption, and violence. Your favorite friendly neighborhood characters are here as well: accountant William Macbeth and his wife Gloria; Mr. Duncan, the firm’s seniormost partner and his two spawn; rowdy office workers MacDuff and Lennox; and rival accountant Banquo.
The fallout is essentially the same. What Jaybird O’Berski has done, however, (and done well) is infused a tremendous amount of humor into the characters’ interactions. His adaptation consists of 90 percent Shakespearean text and about 10 percent adjustments for the new setting (“Is this a hammer I see before me?”) and a few new lines for humorous impact and commentary.
An outstanding technical department is led by Jeff Alguire, who also appears as Macduff. Award-winning set designer Miyuku Su is, as always, at the top of her game. Using a static set is not typically done with a play that originally takes place over hundreds of miles, but the intimacy of her office makes the characters feel that much bigger. Her meticulous attention to detail and accuracy grounds the play firmly in 1963.
Likewise, Katharine Whalen’s costumes make each character distinct, but not cartoonish, and secures them in time and place, as do Mara Thomas’ perfect and functional props, which O’Berski’s cast uses with great effect.
Composer Louis Landry serves up an original sinister film noir score, complete with euphonium and theremin for added effect. This scoring, combined with the use of 1960s pop music, makes scenes dynamic and jarring.
Juxtaposing violence with joyful music is more Quentin Tarantino than Shakespeare and helps give the piece a cinematic quality. This reviewer was extremely pleased that each of the songs chosen for the piece was released in the year of the story, lending to authenticity and tone.
It is Chuck Catotti’s lighting design gives the story its familiar haunted quality, and high school sophomore Carmen Tiffin’s special effects makeup makes the violence all the more real.
The ensemble are perfectly cast and deliver the Bard’s words with such ease that it feels like David Mamet. This Macbeth is pretty easy to follow.
Dan Oliver’s Bill Macbeth is surprisingly understated, given the typical scenery-chewing that we are subjected to by the Royal Academy types. His Macbeth is at once sympathetic and terrifying, with a chilling lack of morality that becomes increasingly apparent as the play moves forward.
Julie Oliver delivers one of the show’s finest performances as Gloria Macbeth. She has managed to make Lady M the funniest character in the play; and her eccentricities are delightful, until her jarring descent into bloodstained madness.
Jeff Alguire knocks ’em dead with Dick Macduff’s madcap hijinks and double-takes. Nancy Merlin, Caitlin Wells, and Liam O’Neill serve as an odd but very amusing trio of foreign cleaning women. Wells also serves brilliantly as the waifish Peggy Macduff. They give strong comic performances, but the thickness of their accents sometimes prevents intelligibility.
Dale Wolf’s Frank Duncan is maniacal, and wild and Marshall Botvinick’s Frank Jr, while well-developed and well-acted, is given bits of bizarre business that border on absurdism. Jessica Hudson, as lushy office worker Connie Lennox, is one of the show’s real standouts. She is fiesty, funny, and smart as a whip.
Rebecca Bossen’s office trollop is well-crafted and delivered with impeccable comedic timing. Shelby Hahn’s lumbering good-ol’-boy reading of Earl Banquo is pitch-perfect and is an appropriate contrast to Dan Oliver’s more reserved Bill Macbeth.
Jessica Flemming’s Wanda Donalbain gives the office an air of sweetness that is certainly missing from the Bard’s plot. Alice Rose Turner, as Veronica Hecate, delivers her lines with wit and tons of quirk. However, her character’s big shift in the second act is a poor structural choice, through no fault of Turner’s.
Danny Grewen’s silent performance as Oscar does not go unnoticed, because he serves the show in another way: he plays instruments live onstage. He plays beautifully and is a welcome addition to the play’s diverse elements. Erik Lars Myers has some funny moments near the end of the show, but the necessity of his character is not entirely clear.
Though it takes the audience a few minutes to adjust to the speed of the piece, we quickly settle in for the ride. The majority of the laughs are coming from those with a background in Macbeth. The switches in language (replacing original references with modern ones) got much of the director and cast’s attention. At times, this felt a little forced and was akin to an Elizabethan version of Mad Libs. “Regional Overall Manager” replacing “Thane of Cawdor” is a funny twist indeed; but its repeated, emphatic use starts to feel hokey.
The first act of the show is extraordinary, taking us from the appearance of the Weird Cleaners to the “disposal” of Banquo midway through Act III (not an uncommon placement for intermission). A breakneck pace, surprising line delivery, smooth transitions, and irreverent staging keep the first act sharp and alive. The imaginative Jaybird O’Berski has soldered a combination of dark humor and crime, echoing notable cinematic works such as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Act Two is where things go wrong — for the characters and for the production itself. More than a few scenes feel unbalanced in their pacing, and a bizarre science-fiction plot element is introduced for no particular reason (a handful of audience members literally threw their hands into the air in confusion).
Some of the violence feels clumsy, and the laughs all but stop. It feels like a failed Carol Burnett Show sketch. Given that the play is extremely faithful to the original story, it is all the more confusing when the ending is changed unexpectedly. This can be an effective choice in certain cases, but this deus ex machina is too out-there.
Sadly, after a stellar first act, this show jumps the shark at the halfway point. The first act makes the show worth seeing, but the second act makes it worth only half the ticket price.
The show is bordering on Rated R territory for language, violence, and sexual activity.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 2nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article99529357.html; and Aug. 31st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-review by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/maccountant/Event?oid=5062219.
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents MACCOUNTANT at 8 p.m. Sept. 3, 8-10, and 14-17 at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.
TICKETS: $17 ($9 students with ID and $13 seniors and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: https://dime.io/events/maccountant.
SHOW: http://littlegreenpig.com/index.html and http://www.cgtheatre.com/#!maccountant/p5unm.
VIDEO PREVIEW (by Nick Karner): https://vimeo.com/179377463.
PRESENTER: http://littlegreenpig.com/, https://www.facebook.com/LittleGreenPigTheatricalConcern, and https://twitter.com/OLittleGreenPig.
VENUE: http://www.cgtheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/cgtheatre, and https://twitter.com/CGTheatre919.
Jaybird O’Berski (Durham adapter and director): http://www.jaybirdoberski.com/ (official website), http://www.littlegreenpig.com/jaybird-o-berski.html (LGP bio), https://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people/jaybird-oberski (Duke Theater Studies bio), and https://twitter.com/jaybirdoberski (Twitter page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.