It's the stuff of noir comedy. An ambitious young man invites the CEO of his company -- who has just given him an astonishing promotion -- home for dinner. Over courses of wine, cheese and scintillating conversation, however, the man's equally ambitious wife persuades him to kill said CEO, unleashing waves of violence, horror and recrimination. In the hands of director Neil Labute, perhaps, or Todd Solondz, such a story would be a scathing commentary on the empty craving for success that marks our society. But the story has already been told, albeit with Scottish highlanders, nearly 400 years ago. Such is the enduring relevancy of Shakespeare's eerie cautionary tale of ambition gone mad, Macbeth.
"It's worse than killing 'the boss'. What he's doing is killing the king," explains Jack Phillips, executive director for the Civic Theatre and director of the Civic's production of Macbeth, which opens Friday night.
In reinventing Macbeth for Spokane audiences, Phillips opted to work with both traditional and untraditional elements. But lest you worry that Lady Macbeth will appear looking like Judy Jetson or that the king of Scotland will be dispatched via light saber, rest assured that the costuming is vintage 11th century Scotland.
"Shakespeare himself dressed his actors in Elizabethan clothes regardless of whether the play took place in ancient Rome or ancient Greece. It didn't make any difference," explains Phillips. "And it's the same with setting. If you want to make it traditional, you'd have to set it outside, where two-thirds of the audience are standing. That's why you see so many variations in how Shakespeare is done. You have to find that hook, that context, in order to get into the play. You have to find some way to make it relevant to what we're doing today."
If there is anything futuristic about the Civic's production of Macbeth, it's in Phillips use of the concept of time.
"I've always been fascinated with how the word 'time' is used -- it's repeated so often in Macbeth," says Phillips. "That, coupled with Shakespeare's major theme, that people's most passionate actions reverberate for ages, led me to thinking about what would happen if Macbeth had lived."
Phillips envisioned a world in which Macbeth's philosophy of killing anyone who stands in your way had become accepted and practiced over centuries.
"I always thought that the witches were much more involved in this play than they seemed to be," he says. "And I thought, what if the witches lived in that parallel universe, in the future, and they located not only where this all originated, with Macbeth, but also the exact moment at which to stop him and keep this terrible world from coming about."
One of the most compelling things about Shakespeare today is that he created plum roles that are as vital and real now as they were four centuries ago. In the coveted roles of Lord and Lady Macbeth are Maynard Villers and Margaret MacArthur, who bring much experience to their respective roles.
"I have a great familiarity with this play; the first time I did it was in 1978 at Washington State University," says Villers, whose name should be immediately recognizable to area audiences. "I played MacDuff then, and nine years later in Seattle, I played MacDuff again. Now, of course, I'm playing Macbeth."
How then, does an actor take a role like Macbeth and take ownership of it?
"As with any actor, life experience is a huge component," says Villers, "and a life-long devotion to Shakespeare."
As Lady Macbeth, MacArthur found her operating instructions within the Bard's thorough text.
"In Shakespeare's time, ink and paper were incredibly expensive, so the actors only got their own scenes. But Shakespeare wrote clues in their lines, embedded in the language. All the clues they needed were in their words," says MacArthur. "In terms of Lady Macbeth, there was so much in the way of military imagery. That line she says to Macbeth, 'but screw your courage to the sticking place,' is a reference to the crossbow, and its tautness. And many of her speeches have this sort of military, warlike connotation."
Which is not to say that Lady Macbeth is lacking some deadly feminine wiles.
"She is the consummate actress. I've seen this play many times, and it's always bugged me to see Lady Macbeth so often portrayed as fat, dumpy and 55," she says. "I see her as full of this sort of fiery energy, with a mind you just have to sit and marvel at. She's ambitious, and very focused, very firm. And ultimately, she's completely devoted to her partnership with Macbeth. In her mind, it's 'what we create together, that matters, and nothing else'. What's interesting is that we all have those aspects, fierceness, ambition, pride, but in Lady Macbeth, they're magnified about 20 times."
MacArthur and Villers were not strangers to one another when they were cast in January. In fact, they worked together on Man of La Mancha in Edmonds, Wash., 16 years ago and were delighted to see each other again.
"I'm very grateful to be working with Maynard. We're very comfortable working with one another, and we have a sort of unspoken permission to experiment with our characters and how they might behave. It doesn't happen very often," says MacArthur. "It's interesting, too, that Jack cast this show the way that he did. Maynard is very centered, his energy is very calm. Whereas my energy is practically Italian, it's all over the place and rather fiery."
The Civic has a longstanding tradition of doing one play a season that ties into the curriculum at Spokane District 81 and Valley schools. This year, thousands of area high school kids will get a chance to see Macbeth.
"A lot of schools are going to be coming through, even some kids that are going to be bused in from Libby, Montana," says Phillips. "Many of these kids have only heard Shakespeare read aloud in the classroom, they've never heard it read by someone who knows how to do it. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, which is the most natural rhythm for the English language. It's just like hearing a song sung; you're aware that there's a melody, but you're listening to the words as well."
The Civic Theatre, 1020 N. Howard, presents Macbeth on Feb. 23-25, March 1-4, and March 8-10. All performances are at 8 pm, except Sundays, which are 2 pm matinees. Tickets: $14; $12 seniors; $8 students. Call: 325-2507.