“Just imagine,” the title character instructs near the top of Tim Crouch’s riveting “I, Banquo.” His eyes are like caverns and his tone is subtly mesmeric, so it’s not hard to go with the request. Imagine your best friend for life, he continues, your brother-in-arms who has both saved your life and you his, imagine this closest of all friends is actually evil. And you’ve been utterly blind to it. Those are the worst kind of betrayals, the hollow-eyed Banquo (Dan Waller) tells us; the ones that leave you unable to trust even yourself.
That’s the betrayal at the dark heart of director Marti Lyons’ staging of “I, Banquo” for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Anchored by Waller in a tour-de-force performance, “I, Banquo,” creates a thrilling alternate Shakespearian universe. With Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” as the bones, Crouch spins a fascinating psychological portrait while also delivering something of a genuine thriller — even if you already know how “Macbeth” turns out. The storytelling is just that good.
Much of that is thanks to Waller, holding down what is essentially a one-man show (the ghost of Banquo’s son, played by Patrick Scott McDermott, makes an eerie, brief appearance), filmed post-pandemic at The Yard via the new “ChicagoShakesStream” platform. It’s the first full-on, new season production since the theater shut down over a year ago due to the pandemic.
Certainly Shakespeare gave Crouch plenty to work with. “Macbeth” has witches, ghosts, regicide, blood that won’t wash off, daggers floating in midair and a dinner party marred by a host having full-on hallucinations. Shakespeare packs it all into a tragedy of sociopathic ambition, fueled by a supernatural forces. It’s a barnburner. There’s also Lady Macbeth, whose ambition and power over her husband make her one of the most fascinating female characters ever penned. Crouch fits all of it into “I, Banquo,” staying true to Shakespeare’s plot but telling it from a new and fascinating perspective.
From the moment Waller begins by telling the audience “Just imagine,” he’s got you hooked. “Just imagine we’re friends,” he continues with a roguish smile, cocking his head just enough so that the stream of blood trickling down his neck becomes noticeable. He and Macbeth were closer than most, he explains. They celebrated the birth of his son together. They mourned the devastating, early death of Macbeth’s own child together. They went to battle for their beloved King Duncan together. They put heads on spikes together.
He and Macbeth were coming home from battle, Banquo continues. They were exhausted. They were dirty. You can practically feel the grit under their feet and the weight of their weapons as Waller’s Banquo sets the scene. They were open to suggestion, Banquo says. That’s when the witches showed up.
Waller’s ability to conjure this twilight world of witches and war is stunning. There are passages where he barely seems to move, gripping the arms of a battered armchair, not even blinking, a world of emotion flickering across his face as clear as a hi-def movie. There’s wry, almost inaudible chuckle that follows his first mention of Lady Macbeth. Waller captures her powers with potent understatement: “I didn’t reckon on your wife, did I?” It is as if he’s invoking Hecate and it is a moment that will make your skin crawl.
Crouch’s script contains some of the some of the most familiar Shakespearian passages ever, but when Waller sinks his teeth into them, it’s with a revitalized sound and fury that almost makes it feel like you’re hearing them for the first time.
Yu Shibagaki’s minimalist set — that moldering black armchair surrounded by darkness and mirrors — is a fitting limbo, with Jason Lynch’s lighting and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound rendering a shadow world of shifting angles and dizzying reflections. At some points, it’s not clear if we’re watching Banquo, or Banquo’s reflection. The resulting sense of discombobulation adds to the eeriness of the whole thing.
Lyons has crafted a pandemic unicorn here: A show where If you turn out the lights on Chicago Shakes’ production, you could almost swear you were in a theater.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.