Brent Hirose as Macbeth in the Literary Larceny Collective production of The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth. Photo by Nancy Caldwell.
Brent Hirose as Macbeth in the Literary Larceny Collective production of The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth. Photo by Nancy Caldwell.

Ask pretty much any actor, and they will tell you performing Shakespeare’s Macbeth can be a real workout. Add elements of comedy and improvisation on top of his original text, and it should be darn right impossible.  But that is precisely what the Literary Larceny Collective does in The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, currently on stage at the Jericho Arts Centre.

In The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, the real Macbeth (aka Mac Bethad mac Findlaích) is fed-up with the way he has been portrayed countless times in Shakespeare’s tragedy over the centuries. Looking for a way to set the record straight, Macbeth hopes to correct the inaccuracies of his story as written by Shakespeare some 600 years after his reign, and perhaps change what has become his inevitable fate.

With Shakespeare’s original text as a base, through a series of TheatreSports games, audience suggestions and even some audience participation, Macbeth’s familiar story unfolds in some unexpected ways. For example, Facebook becomes a very funny and anachronistic through-joke for King Duncan and Lady Macbeth must deliver one of her speeches using a trio of suggested feelings. The second act opener featuring members of the audience in a dance number, although a little long, was a great deal of fun.

Recognizing just how tricky mashing these two genres together would be, the production features two directors. Bard on the Beach veteran Bernard Cuffling tackles the Shakespearean side, while TheatreSports alumn Gary Jones worked with the actors on the improvisational aspects of the play. And while it’s impossible to say whether the production would have turned out any differently with just one of these men at the helm, for Brent Hirose at least, it has paid off.

Not that Hirose needs much help, at least on the improvisational side. As a member of Vancouver’s Instant Theatre, he has some practice in this sort of mash-up having performed in that company’s Shakespeare After Dark.

What is surprising is that based on Hirose’s theatrical resume, he has not performed in a traditional mounting of a Shakespeare play. Given how Hirose tackles Shakespeare’s text with clarity, understanding, and authority in The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, it can only be a matter of time. That isn’t to say other members of this cast don’t do some good work, but Hirose is eminently watchable on both sides of this show’s theatrical equation. There is a good reason he is this show’s star.

Despite some amusing bits throughout The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, like most shows of its nature, much depends on audience suggestions and its willingness to play along. With opening night crowds notoriously stacked with friends, family and other well-wishers, the real test for the ensemble will come in performances to come.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks comes in the pacing of the show. With Shakespeare’s play being interrupted continuously by requests of the audience and other bits of business, opening night dragged well beyond its advertised two-hour run time. Not only does it take time to acquire the necessary suggestions, but it also takes time to reimmerse us back into the story.

Another issue comes with the show’s tone. With some of the actors going for broad comedic strokes, the characterizations are often tough to reconcile beside the more even and contained performances from Hirose and Ali Froggatt as Lady Macbeth. Both Hirose and Froggatt found the comedy without resorting to caricatures.

It took a village (it says so in the house program) to build the set for The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth. Under the leadership of set designer Todd Parker, the actors have an ample multi-level playground.

While Samuel T. Wilson’s sound design provides some necessary music and sound effects, it was often too loud. That he was able to pull the suggested Bee Gee’s song Stayin’ Alive out of thin air was a marvel.

Successful in fits and spurts, The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth is an ambitious project. It is tough not to admire the fearlessness of this theatre collective in attempting it. With improvisational theatre constantly looking to reinvent itself it is exciting to see a company attempt to shake things up a bit with the unexpected.

And while the mash-up doesn’t always gel, one thing is for certain: I look forward to seeing Hirose tackle Shakespeare in a more traditional form soon.

The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth written by Brent Hirose and David C Jones. Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Directed by Bernard Cuffling and Gary Jones. A Literary Larceny Collective production on stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until December 15. Tickets are available online at Ticket Wire.

Editor’s Note: The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth was co-written and features Vancouver Presents contributor David C. Jones.