>>> Review: Macbeth: Walking Shadows

MACBETH: WALKING SHADOWS by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Brendan McMurty-Howlett (Shakespeare in the Ruff). At Withrow Park (Logan,.

MACBETH: WALKING SHADOWS by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Brendan McMurty-Howlett (Shakespeare in the Ruff). At Withrow Park (Logan, south of Danforth). To August 30. Pwyc ($15 sugg). shakespeareintheruff.com. Rating: NNNN

Now in its fourth summer bringing the Bard to Riverdale’s Withrow Park, Shakespeare in the Ruff have upped the ante, delivering their best adaptation so far, a dystopian puppet version of Macbeth. With its striking design and strong performances, it’s a haunting take on the classic tragedy that’s perfectly suited to the verdant park surroundings.

Visually, the puppets are a hit. Don’t think Muppets or marionettes – designer Zach Fraser‘s unsettling human-sized forest creatures have cartoon-like faces and tree limbs for arms, making them look like Tim Burton-styled Ents from Lord Of The Rings. Actors control the head, torso and one arm from behind, and are free to roam about. The puppets’ tree-branch limbs are modular and interchangeable – perfect for depicting all those gruesome dismemberings. At times, additional actors add an extra arm or a pair of legs for complex action and fight scenes. They’re difficult to describe but a treat to watch.

Since the puppets lack movable mouths, it’s up to the actors to really sell their characters, which they do ably. Alexander Crowther nicely conveys the ambition and paranoia of the title role, while Kaitlin Morrow provides consistently hilarious comic relief as a range of supporting characters. Director (and SITR founder) Brendan McMurty-Howlett again demonstrates his gift for making the complex prose easy to understand, and balancing dark themes with healthy doses of humour.

Ominous percussion on rusted oil drums and eerie arias sung by a mysterious cloaked choir contribute to the wonderfully spooky atmosphere in a land where nature has begun to reclaim post-apocalyptic ruins.

Beyond their stellar shows that continue to push Shakespeare and outdoor theatre in exciting new directions, McMurty-Howlett and company also deserve tons of credit for building up a vibrant community around their productions, including revolving pre-show live entertainment, an apprenticeship program for high-school students (Young Ruffians) and post-show fireside chats.

The result is an infectious sense of DIY spirit and camaraderie that’s evident both on and offstage, and nicely harkens back to the troupes of Shakespeare’s day.

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