Something wicked awesome: 'Macbeth' in a real mansion offers Halloween thrills

L-R: Michael Kelley at Macbeth, Tina Fredericks as a Witch, and Sarah Nargang as Lady Macbeth

L-R: Michael Kelley at Macbeth, Tina Fredericks as a Witch, and Sarah Nargang as Lady Macbeth Blkk Hand

Given the Minnesota Historical Society’s laudable willingness to facilitate theatrical productions at the James J. Hill House, it was probably inevitable that Macbeth, Shakespeare’s claustrophobic castle play, would one day appear there. The current production by Wayward Theatre Company plays up the seasonal relevance of the ghost pursuing the eponymous Scot through a haunted mansion.

While most plays at the Hill House more or less hunker down in a single spot, the audience is highly mobile for this Macbeth, which spans multiple levels of the house: from an eerie encounter with the Weird Sisters in the historic home’s upper reaches to a basement denouement, where Macbeth (Michael Kelley) gazes down a drain and seems to wonder whether it can possibly transport all the blood he’s spilled.

The venue is a nifty gimmick, but in director Tim McVean’s creative staging it’s much more than that. The actors pause to really let us feel the loneliness of a silent mansion at night. The late-fall timing isn’t just spooky but practical: slanting summer light would break the spell.

We listen to the creaking walls and distant footfalls, understanding just how tiny a giant house on a hill can feel when your conscience isn’t clean. When Macbeth is seized by maniacal laughter and walks out of a room, McVean lets us hear him go—all the way down the hall. At a first-floor piano, instrumentalist Steven Zubich and vocalist Meghan Sherer provide moody jazz befitting the production’s 1940s setting.

For all its evocative frights, this Macbeth is also surprisingly funny. The show’s intimate scale allows the actors to find humor in little moments, like when the newly crowned king, having scared his dinner guests away after spotting the ghost of Banquo (Lucas Gerstner), sits, shaken, and drinks their glasses of wine.

The tragedy is effective and the climax is stirring, thanks in part to spine-chilling performances by Tina Frederickson, Alessandra Bongiardina, and Megan Daoust as the witches who foresee Macbeth’s triumph as well as his downfall. Still, Kelley’s title performance is strongest in the scenes where he’s struggling to put on a happy face even as he’s being sucked into the quicksand of his own ambition.

Any Macbeth lives or dies, so to speak, by the force of its Lady Macbeth, and Sarah Nargang (pictured) proves a delicious foil. Her cadaverous cosmetics are unnecessary: We know what this cruel queen is about, and when she starts to unravel, Nargang delivers a mature reckoning rather than the cringing caricature this role can devolve to in lesser blood-stained hands.

This site-specific Macbeth is a real Halloween treat, a production that will change the way you look at one of Shakespeare’s most familiar dramas. Even the intermission provides some shivers, to the point where you’ll understand why Macbeth’s dinner guests didn’t stick around for coffee.

James J. Hill House
240 Summit Ave., St. Paul; through November 17