Shakespeare's intense tragedy "Macbeth" has been shortened by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival into a 100-minute headlong charge into the blood and thunder of Scottish royal politics.
While not as bloody as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's truncated production of the Scottish Play several seasons ago -- where a large cauldron of stage blood was the centerpiece of the set, and was spilled in bucket loads all over the stage -- this production is a stunningly emotional piece of theater with the heart of an action movie.
The only drawback of this Free Shakespeare in the Park summer production is that it begins in daylight, which diminishes some of the spooky effects built into the show. But it is nonetheless a riveting piece of theater directed by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival veteran Kenneth Kelleher, who proves once again he knows his way around a makeshift stage set up near a playground and swimming pool.
Michael Ray Wisely, a familiar Bay Area actor, plays the title role of the man who would be king -- if he follows his wife's advice and offs a number of rivals after the current king is stabbed to death following dinner at Mac's place.
With all the blood and stuff, Macbeth is kind of a reluctant ruler, haunted by the ghosts who plague him following the start of the blood fest.
His wife, Lady Macbeth (Emily Jordan) also ends up insane and haunted as the story unfolds, proving that killing your way to the top may not be the best plan for long-term vocational success.
Both actors do a terrific job creating a couple trapped in the claws of blind ambition and realizing there is little or no chance of escaping unscathed. Calling upon fear, cunning and even hallucination, Wisely and Jordan bring their characters into clear, sharp and disturbing focus.
The three Wayward Sisters (witches), played by Rainier Pearl-Styles, Rasika Raghavan and Sarah Young are presented as something of spiritual abstractions by Kelleher, who often places them in frames when they make pronouncement, including those reflecting Macbeth's future.
They are delightfully ghostly and spooky, but that further illustrates the technical difficulty of presenting a show outdoors before night falls. There are scenes of violence and spirituality that would play ever so much more dramatically if it were dark enough to manipulate images with light. Still, the play's mood is pretty effectively established before the sun goes down.
And, in the case of "Macbeth," mood is all important, since the show depends as much on the internal working of the characters' minds as it does their spoken thoughts. The hints and threats of supernatural violence is as frightening as the bloodshed that actually happens.
The illusion is particularly well set by Michael Moerman as Duncan and Stephen Muterspaugh as Banquo, along with Ryan Tasker at Macduff and Maryssa Wanlass as Lady Macduff, who, with her children, are brutally murdered in a savage bout of revenge by Macbeth.
By William Shakespeare, presented by San Francisco's Shakespeare Festival's Free Shakespeare in the Park
Through: July 14 in Pleasanton, followed by stops at other Bay Area locations throughout the summer
Where: Amador Valley Community Park, Pleasanton.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: Free; www.sfshakes.org