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“Voodoo Macbeth” misses its performance mark at Ensembler

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

During the great depression of the 1930s the U. S. government attempted to stir up the economy by creating various works projects.  One of the organizations developed was the Federal Theatre Project.  It hired directors, actors and technicians to produce theatrical productions that charged low to no-cost for admission.  Many of these were new scripts, and employed out-of-work and emerging artists to participate in the shows.

Popular theatrical names that emerged from the FTP included Arthur Miller, John Houseman and Elia Kazan.  Also emerging was a young Orson Welles, whose “Voodoo Macbeth” is considered one of the movements most important works.

Wells’ script and production was part of a FTP’s African American Project, which had a unit in Cleveland.  AAP provided entry paths into the theatre for black actors and stagehands, and attempted to raise community pride among blacks for not only creating contemporary works, but classics.

In 1936, Wells used an all black cast to transfer Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” from medieval Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island, probably Haiti, noted for its witchcraft and voodoo-believing population.

The show was not only a box-office sensation, but is regarded as a classic due to its innovative interpretation.  It secured for Wells, at age 20, an early place on the list of theatrical geniuses.

The exchanging of Scotland for Haiti was accomplished by making the “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble witches” into voodoo conjurers and changing the queen of the witches into a bullwhip-snapping medicine doctor.

Much of the Shakespearean cast appears in Wells’  play.  Macbeth, commits murder to become king and fulfill his wife’s ambition for power.  There is Lady MacBeth, who has blood on her hands that she can’t wash off.  There is the rest of the royal extended family who get killed or eventually become the new royalty.  The play retains its reputation as the tragedy of tragedies!

Wells’ production became a sensation not only due to the creative script, but due to the quality of the performances.  It takes amazing actors to develop the complex roles of “Voodoo MacBeth.”

Unfortunately, except for Carly Germany, who portrays Lady Macbeth, the cast tries hard, but isn’t completely capable of conveying the depth of Shakespeare’s characterizations.  It’s not totally their fault.  The material is just too deep and taxing for less than the most skilled of actors to portray.

The Ensemble production has some performance highlights besides Germany’s.  Stephen D. Hood gets laughs as the Porter.  Kyle Carthens (Macduff) , Leonard Goff (Duncan), Robert Hunter (Malcolm), Joseph Primes (Hecate) and Jimmie Woody (Macbeth) have some good moments.

Some of the “voodoo” elements are missing due to the lack of Caribbean sing-song accents, and confusing costuming and makeup.  Some of the projections, a technique which Ensemble has adopted as their main means of scenery in most of their recent productions, also is island inconsistent and sometimes size-overwhelming.

Capsule judgment:  “Voodoo Macbeth,” a production of Ensemble Theatre in collaboration with The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is an ambitious project of a historically important theatrical script.  The play requires a level of acting that is beyond the training and talent of most of  the cast, thus the experience is less than it could have been.  

“Voodoo Macbeth” runs Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays (8 PM) and Sundays (2 PM) through June 8, 2014, at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the Coventry Building, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to


To read the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to: