From time to time, a play can take you by surprise. That was the case with Chain Theater's macbitches, written by Sophie McIntosh and directed by Ella Jane New. While intrigued by the premise—when a freshman lands the coveted role of Lady Macbeth, four upperclassmen invite her over for a night of drinking and unintentional riffing on Shakespeare—I was not prepared for the show to be THIS GOOD.
Loosely based on Macbeth, the entire play takes place in the living room of an apartment shared by best friends Rachel and Lexi (Caroline Orlando and Natasja Naarendorp, respectively): both seasoned, ambitious acting majors. Rachel is the teacher's pet who always lands the starring roles, while Lexi usually plays second fiddle. Their friends Piper (Laura Clare Browne), who's led a more sheltered life than the others, and Cam (Morgan Lui), who's depressed and harboring a major crush on Rachel, are also in attendance, as is, of course, Hailey (Marie Dinolan): the upstart freshman who landed everyone's dream role, and who seems to have impressed their male director in more ways than one. With the night deepening and the bottles emptying, the scene is fraught with danger.
At first, we're treated to what seems a shrewd, uproarious comedy. The girls dish on their professors and fellow students, relive past productions, and laugh at and with each other. It's a smarter, sharper, thespian Mean Girls. But it's not all fun and games. While the first part of the play gets many well-deserved laughs (I can't remember the last time I laughed this much, this hard, and this genuinely at the theatre), the energy onstage is tense. There's "something wicked" lurking just beneath the jokes and gossip.
When Hailey passes out and Piper, the voice of reason, leaves for the night, that something is very near indeed. The lights flicker, the room darkens, and there's a knock at the door. Now, on the other side of the night, when civility has given way to ruthless animosity, it's clear that a week of brutal auditions, followed by resounding rejections, have driven everyone to the tipping point—a point that is, in true Macbeth fashion, bloody.
I won't mince words. macbitches is brilliant. Thanks to spooky-good writing and superb acting, I was on the edge of my seat, 110% engaged. Not only is it hilarious and chilling, it's weighty. McIntosh takes Shakespearean themes and grounds them in a new reality. Envy, ambition, treachery, and corruption look different among college girls than among soldiers and kings: while the latter may have farther reaching consequences, the first hits harder for a modern audience.
But macbitches also touches on something Shakespeare himself sometimes overlooks: how male power structures drive women into desperate corners. In this case, they'll do just about anything to secure, from a male director, the only significant role granted them by a male playwright. In other words, the fight for Lady Macbeth is really a fight for male approval ("unsex me here," indeed).
Amid a surfeit of tired, bland Shakespearean revivals, macbitches is the real thing. Of course, it's not straight Shakespeare, and nor is it a strict reinterpretation of Macbeth. But if you're seeking the answer to the question: is Shakespeare still relevant? Look no further. Rush out and see this gripping production ASAP.
'macbitches' runs August 19 through September 10 at the Chain Theatre (312 W 36th St, 4th Floor). For tickets and more info, see the link below: