In Red Bull Theater’s MAC BETH, seven young women play schoolgirls acting out Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Their uniforms look Scottish; a pocket insignia can’t be read from the house, but the mind fills in a Scots name. The stockings and pleated skirts evoke kilts, and so, despite the tragedy, the cross-dressing women of comedies like As You Like It and Twelfth Night (played originally by young men). Macbeth has its own gender nuances, driven as it is by “three weird sisters,” who happen to be bearded, and a would-be-queen who commands: “Unsex me here.” Not to forget a nemesis “not of woman born.”

Add in girlishness and the willingness to press through its stereotypes, of the giggling, spiteful, mean girl sort, and things get really interesting. Every “man,” or “men,” or “manly” explodes like a shell in the language. These aren’t just women enacting a tragedy of men, but girls the violence of adults. The girls of MAC BETH laugh inappropriately and speak of grave matters they don’t understand. Age does not assure moral maturity, but it’s not irrelevant to it, either. When Macbeth is told of a shriek from behind, “It is the cry of women, my good lord,” there is a brief but expanding silence.

The actors, not playing the persons of Macbeth but schoolgirls playing them, are unflagging in their double game. They have credited roles in the play, but most pick up other parts along the way (plus the schoolgirls they are really playing). The uniformity of Jessica Pabst’s costumes ensures a lack of fuss to the transitions; so do Catherine Cornell’s set and Jeff Croiter’s lighting, which evoke a secret outdoor place. The sound design by Erin Bednartz gives verve and a certain shock value to the times the girls break into dance with primal abandon.

As orchestrators of the whole, the witches do the most double-tasking as actors. Annasophia Robb gives the Porter’s speech, with its phallic comedy, a naughty between-us-girls quality, just one of many elegant moments. Sharlene Cruz is ingratiatingly sly as the chief instigator of the witches’ goings on (she drops a memorable out-of-frame reference to “the science lab” that reminds us that we are watching schoolgirls, not Macbeth). As the bookish, socially awkward witch, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick craves and doubts the terrible end to their game.

In MAC BETH, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff are still leading and supporting parts, but of Macbeth as play-within-the-play. This gives them immense freedom as actors. They can be amused by the play’s violence and philosophical seriousness, puzzle over obscure lines, abjure dwelling upon the depths of things. This quality of being both in and out of role is strongest in Isabelle Fuhrman’s Macbeth; it’s a game to her, one whose stakes she can’t imagine. Ayana Workman gives Banquo, one of the great sidekicks of world drama, an agency rarely seen in him. Macduff, Macbeth’s ironic nemesis, couldn’t be better served than by Lily Santiago, who perfectly mouths the final shocker. And Ismenia Mendes, an elegant naturalizer of the verse, is so persuasive as Lady Macbeth as to make one forget the schoolgirl frame. This is no flaw, but essential to MAC BETH’s dynamism, the physics of the stage in action.

Erica Schmidt, the director and adapter, has conjured something perfect to itself. MAC BETH gives us Macbeth itself, if we want it. The text is no more trimmed or altered than it might be in a “straight” production; there is barely a word not in the original. But inset in a frame of our own time, it is tellingly strange, there-and-then a weird sister to here-and-now.

MAC BETH plays through June 9 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Click here for tickets and information. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

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