Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest roles for women of all time, but of course, during his own lifetime, they were all played by men. The new Fern Theatre production of “Macbeth.” at 7 Stages through November 17, turns that convention on its head by assigning — without much comment, change to the text, or other fuss — all of the roles to women.
No literal explanation for the switch of genders is required — the text is familiar and strong enough that it will accommodate almost any inventive restaging. But the graffiti-covered set and the martial, medieval costumes made me wonder if perhaps we’re meant to understand the setting as a future dystopian time in which there are no men. Some women have taken to calling themselves men, adopting royal titles and fighting wars, while others have remained in traditional roles of wives and mothers. But no matter. We begin with the three Weird Sisters asking when they’ll meet again and we proceed into the bloody mess from there, whether it’s ladies’ night or no.
The small cast does well in taking on a number of roles. “Macbeth” is not a play that typically uses a small cast, but I was surprised during bows there were only about seven actresses in the play. The use of all women in casting allows for some especially interesting part doubling. After the first scene, the Weird Sisters unmask to become Duncan, Malcolm, and the sergeant surveying the field of battle. It’s a device that works especially well in a later scene when the Weird Sisters call forth apparitions from their cauldron: they simply remove their masks, and they’re different characters. The cast also takes on Shakespeare’s language adeptly, with meaning and intent always clear.
Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” sounds authentically brooding as spoken by actress Mary Russell, and Bryn Striepe as Lady Macbeth provokes and manipulates Macbeth into action with an almost perverse intensity and drive, though soliloquies and lines of dialogue by the young cast occasionally lack the weird interiority, spaciousness and idiosyncrasy that seasoned repertory Shakespearean actors can bring. No actress is used to play Banquo’s ghost in the banquet scene, and the presence of an actual silent visible body (Macbeth here reacts to empty space) is missed for the supernatural creepiness it lends to the scene.
But, mostly, the simple switch of genders curiously energizes the play and ingeniously highlights how often in “Macbeth” characters call attention to their own sex or someone else’s. I suspect the weird frisson might have been similar with a cast of all men: “When you durst do it, then you were a man;” “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so;” “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;” “Unsex me here,” and a hundred other similar lines in nearly every scene.
It’s a play that may easily accommodate a shift in the actors’ genders, but the characters themselves seem to live in a world in which gender is absolute — consigning everyone to society’s immutable places for men and women in the public realm — and also dangerously unfixed: Lady Macbeth convinces Macbeth to commit murder by needling at his notion of his own manhood (a technique he later emulates with Banquo’s assassins), she herself implores dark spirits to take away her womanliness, the witches are men-like women, the porter famously expounds what drink both gives and takes away, a man’s ability to “stand to” with a woman, and so on.
In the end, Fern Theatre’s “Macbeth” offers audiences a new and intriguing take on a very old and immortal play, which is no small accomplishment.