Instead of a newt’s eye and some bat’s wool, the playwright Oren Stevens boiled and bubbled dribs and drabs of pop culture together to create MacBitch. Co-created with the director Ariel Craft, this version of Macbeth now at the EXIT Theater mashes up Shakespearean phrasing with the slang-filled vernacular of teenage girls.
In this adaptation, Craft and Stevens employ a familiar formula like the one used in 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew) and Clueless (after Jane Austen’s Emma). They take the skeleton of the original work and then hang contemporary clothing on it. But unlike those ’90s movies, MacBitch doesn’t abandon Shakespeare’s actual wording altogether.
Set in a mean-girls high school, some of the 10 actresses in the all-female cast speak like Valley girls, others like Shakespearean characters, while still others like combinations of both. This bifurcation in the script confused the dramatic logic and momentum of the plot. At first, when the gum-chewing queen bees show up with their catty comments, the audience prepares itself for a comedic retooling of the tragedy. The tonal shifts are hard to recover from.
Duncan (Amitis Khoroushi) and her BFF Cameron (Cassie Rosenbrock) coil their heads in “as if!” mode, tossing locks of hair to express contempt for their social inferiors. But they have a problem — the third girl in their ruling triumvirate has left the school, and they’re looking for a replacement. When the introverted Maxine (Lauren Hayes) becomes an unlikely candidate for their Charmed-like coven of three, she trades in her insecurity for homicidal tendencies.
Maxine may be Stevens’ equivalent of Macbeth, but the parallels between the two casts of characters quickly start to erode. She begins the play as the narrator, introducing everyone’s background and motivations with a level head. And then, as the idea of ambition, of gaining access to power, grows, that good-natured narrative voice is subsumed by an inner monologue marked by a sudden turn to malice.
What changes Maxine so abruptly and with such determination? Witches one (Jessica Waldman), two (Carla Pauli) and three (Mikka Bonel). Here, they aren’t exactly real — but they have all the agency in MacBitch. They’re phantoms in the divided consciences of these adolescent girls. Parents and teachers either don’t exist or are irrelevant actors when it comes to the established hierarchies that form early on in school.
At the start of the play, Maxine, a senior, has a best friend in Brodie (Neiry Rojo). She also acts kindly towards her younger sister Ladybird (Maria Leigh) on her first day as a freshman. But when she’s faced with the tantalizing opportunity to become popular, Maxine can’t maintain or assert her sense of reason. The witches advocate for chaos and confusion. Maxine takes their advice, unable to trust her real life confidantes, and loses her soul in the process.
The metaphors for muddled adolescent minds in MacBitch are spot on — so to speak — but they would have come across more clearly had the co-creators chosen the current century to convey them in. Craft, who recently directed Phèdre at The Cutting Ball Theater, allowed that heroine’s languor to linger on stage. In this production, the pacing verges on the frenetic. Lots of ’80s pop songs punctuate each condensed scene. This approach, breathlessly racing from one moment to the next, doesn’t allow much emotion to sink in or register.
Years later, what’s memorable about Clueless is the language Cher uses to justify her narcissism, as well as her beleaguered attempts at inclusiveness. Enhanced by her flaws, Cher remains entirely herself, complex and shallow just like the rest of us. Maxine is merely a bewitched pawn who learns nothing about her reckless behavior. After carrying out her murders, the expression on her face stays blank. She’s an empty vessel, totally clueless.
MacBitch, through Aug. 19, at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy St, 415-673-3847 or theexit.org