MEDFORD — Walk into the Chevalier Theatre to see the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and you might think you’ve come to the wrong place. Jenna McFarland-Lord’s set looks like Miss Havisham’s dressing room from Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” or perhaps Downton Abbey after it’s been converted into a hospital. Gray tattered curtains stretch from stage floor to ceiling. Heaped up in one corner are flowered carpets and upholstered chairs and an overturned oval table with a broken leg. Heaped up in another corner are a trunk, a mirror, part of an iron bedstead, and a little white rocking horse. A standing lamp with fringed shade, a huge antique radio, and a set of French doors occupy center stage. A rolling staircase can be deployed left, front, or center; a stained-glass window at the back suggests Tiffany or Lafarge. It’s a show all by itself.
So is director Paula Plum’s concept. Set in the World War I era, or a little after, this “Macbeth” opens with an entrance up the aisle, three nuns dressed like Daughters of Charity processing to the “Agnus Dei” from the Requiem Mass. Once they reach the stage, they remove their cornettes and, to much thunder and lightning, become the three Witches. And they hover throughout the play, as much sisters of mercy as weird sisters, brandishing poisoned entrails one moment, ushering a gurney with a dead body on it through the French doors the next. They’re not the only specters, either. When Macbeth and Macduff reach the final showdown, the ghost of Macduff’s pigtailed daughter (son in Shakespeare’s original) enters and distracts Macbeth with a look, enabling her father to dispatch him.
I was less entranced by Plum’s recasting of Banquo. Sarah Newhouse wears a military jacket and skirt, with what looks like a Red Cross emblem on her sleeve and beret, but her nervous laugh and ingratiating smile lack authority. (She does better, uncredited, as Lady Macduff.) And I’d like to see Mara Sidmore’s Lady Macbeth try to seduce the audience as well as her husband. Sidmore is tight and vinegary; when she lets her hair down for her final, hand-washing scene, it makes all the difference. As Duncan’s son Malcolm, Edmund Donovan looks unsettlingly like Edward VIII, and he comes off as a bit of a wimp, but perhaps that’s appropriate given that it’s Macduff, not Malcolm, who wins back the crown. Some of the double casting (there are just 10 actors) is problematic: Gabriel Graetz as Banquo’s son Fleance seems almost older than his mother.
But there’s no gainsaying Allyn Burrows’s Macbeth. Strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, chasing Lady Macbeth up the stairs, leaping down to audience level for “Is this a dagger I see before me?,” he’s larger than life, and he turns the play into his private duel with fate. James Andreassi is a manly, soldierly Macduff, Ross MacDonald a tough, hardboiled Ross. Richard Snee is an affable, regal Duncan and a comic Porter whose openhanded entreaty to the audience to “remember the porter” brought, Saturday night, no pecuniary response from the front row. Graetz, Lydia Barrett-Mulligan, and Dana Block give the Witches verve and venom.
This “Macbeth” runs just two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. Among Plum’s sagacious cuts: the Hecate scenes (probably written by Thomas Middleton) and Malcolm’s final speech. Karen Perlow’s crepuscular lighting is atmospheric, with effects that range from giant shadows to the infernal red that illuminates the French doors to the descending naked bulb under which Lady Macbeth washes her hands. Anna-Alisa Belous’s costumes are period perfect, from the soldiers’ riding breeches and boots to Lady Macbeth’s array of slinky gowns. “Men must not walk too late,” the play tells us, but I’d walk pretty late to see this “Macbeth” again.