The Weird Sisters
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 6, 2008
It would never have occurred to me to wonder what happened right BEFORE the events of Shakespeare's great play Macbeth transpire; but it did occur to Zack Calhoon, which is why he is a promising young playwright while I am just a theatre reviewer. Calhoon's new work The Weird Sisters, which is directed by Ricardo Riethmuller for East 3rd Ensemble in their debut production, explores a number of fascinating questions raised by the Scottish play, and provides provocative and persuasive answers to them.
For example, and first and foremost: precisely who are the three witches (aka the weird sisters of Calhoon's title), and why are they stirring up such a tempest in their cauldron? Calhoon gives them Celtic-sounding names—Seonaid, Rhoswen, and Muriel—and posits very plausible identities for them, that explain not only these women's supposed "magical powers" (Seonaid is an apothecary, Muriel is a midwife) but also why they would be motivated to plant the seed of a murder plot in Macbeth's head, and why Macbeth himself, along with Scotland's King Duncan, is an object of their vengeance.
The Weird Sisters doesn't stop here though: the play presents back story for most of the other important characters in Shakespeare's work as well. We learn that Macbeth and his Lady are childless (and Lady M is probably unable to conceive again after a miscarriage that occurs at the beginning of this piece); now we have some insight into this couple's need for actualization from without, and also for Macbeth's jealousy of Banquo's children. (I wished that Calhoon had explored the psychology of Lady Macbeth further, though; this is one area where a bit more fleshing out still feels necessary.)
Even more fascinating is the detail about the war that Macbeth and Banquo are sent off to fight for King Duncan. Calhoon follows the Bard in realigning some actual historical events to suit his purposes, but otherwise his research is rewarding, introducing us to the Norwegian king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, who have already invaded England and Denmark when The Weird Sisters begins and are now planning an invasion of Scotland. We also discover how and why the Thane of Cawdor betrayed his monarch, thus making way for the first of the witches' prophecies to come true in Macbeth.
It all amounts to enjoyable speculative fiction that fits neatly with what we know from Macbeth; Riethmuller's stated objective of performing The Weird Sisters and Macbeth back to back is a good impulse.
Calhoon, still a relatively new playwright with just a few credits, has plotted this drama meticulously, though passages could be tightened and tidied up to remove the odd cliche or phrasing that sounds too contemporary. Riethmuller's staging is ambitious, using a lovely set design by Charles Alexander Khaikin that mostly consists of several sliding panels that, via simple modifications plus tricks of lighting, morph from trees to walls to the stained glass windows of a gothic cathedral. Unfortunately, transitions are slowed by the process of moving these panels around; a more seamless, cinematic feel would serve the piece better.
The performances are variable, with superlative work delivered by Susan Ferrara in two roles—she plays the most grounded and focused of the Weird Sisters and also, hilariously and insightfully, Macbeth's Porter. James Ware is stolid and sure-footed as Macbeth. Christine Verleny (Muriel) and Erin Layton (Rhoswen) do not always resist the temptation to push their characters over the top, but they create compelling women worthy of the play's title.
For sheer imagination and fancy, The Weird Sisters is a worthy addition to this season's lineup of new work. It bodes well for both Calhoon and the nascent company East 3rd Ensemble who have brought it to us.