Annexus Theatre Company’s “Thanksgiving at Macbeth’s” is a work by a very smart director and very talented actors who all work very well together. Frustratingly, despite the scads of talent on display, it mostly does not work.
Though William Shakespeare is credited as the playwright — and well over 90 percent of the lines are straight from his works — Solomon HaileSelassie is the mind behind this production. He and the eight members of the cast have “remixed” Shakespeare’s lines to tell the story of a dysfunctional family gathering at Thanksgiving. The patriarch has recently died and divided the family business among five elder members (shades of “King Lear,” one of the few Bard bigs not otherwise directly referenced), and passions flow along with the pre-meal liquor.
…’Thanksgiving at Macbeth’s’ is a work by a very smart director and very talented actors who all work very well together.
HaileSelassie and Company have a Talmudic understanding of Shakespeare; lines are liberally borrowed from many disparate works to convincingly tell a new story. And there’s a hive-mind element to this company — many of the best scenes only work because the actors are in sync in terms of inflection. (Lines that are sincere in their originals are often sarcastic or snarky here, most evidently in Juliet’s use of lines from her balcony scene to bluntly reject Romeo’s affections.)
The show begins with the motif of a “Real Housewives”-like reality show keeping up with the clan; a nice touch is the use of a live camera projecting scenes as they happen in cinema verité to remind the audience that this is all being filmed. (There are also pre-filmed “confessional” shots that can be quite amusing.)
For the first 15 minutes or so, this comes together well. Cast standout Jamie Burrough’s jaded Juliet stumbles around drunk; Anissa Parekh’s Richard III provides running commentary. But then things take a weird turn. Richard puts on a MAGA cap to the horror of Gertrude (a very good Danielle Gallo), but after that one moment, any references to contemporary politics vanish. The family gets high together and does an extended dance that’s funny but also a bizarre non sequitur. (And while the characters are true to their Shakespearean originals in many respects, the relationships are different. Gertrude is younger than Juliet, for instance, and is not Hamlet’s mother. It’s hard to keep up with who’s who — a program with a family tree would have been a big help.)
Midway through, the entire tone of the play veers radically toward the macabre. The humor vanishes, as does the snappy pace. Instead of brief cuts from Shakespeare’s works to tell the story, the excerpts are ever longer, with some seemingly shoehorned in just because they’re from the greatest hits collection. The play reached natural ending points several times, but kept on going; characters made illogical choices just to set up yet another monologue.
There’s a fun, if uneven, half hour in the 85 minutes of “Thanksgiving at Macbeth’s,” but it felt like the remixing team opted to include every idea everyone had in the writers’ room. Many would have been better cut out. Out, I say.
Running Time: 85 minutes.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 18 and up.
“Thanksgiving at Macbeth’s” at Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church Peacock, 222 M Street SW in Washington, will run through July 27. For tickets and more information, click here.