The latest project for the theatrical time machine that is the American Century Theater is a trip back to the angry days of the mid-1960s, when hippies and semi-hippies tried to make their points about societal rot through shock value.
The play "MacBird!" ran a whole year off-Broadway in 1967, upstairs at the Village Gate, during the days of the free speech movement at Berkeley, the rock movement at Woodstock and the free-love movement of the sexual revolution. It relied on the literate wit and audacity of its author Barbara Garson to create the headline-making, having the nerve to imply that Lyndon Johnson (or his wife Lady Bird) had ascended to the Presidency by having his predecessor, John Kennedy, assassinated in his home state of Texas — and it did it with much of the plot and a lot of the language from Shakespeare's "Macbeth." The play premiered just three years after that fatal November day in 1963, and the muffled drum procession from the Capitol to the site of the eternal flame in Arlington.
Yet that audacity stays stuck in the '60s. What was shocking then is somehow more commonplace today.
But this new production, directed with a sense of style and flair by Ellen Dempsey, avoids treating the play as a museum piece and attempts to inject it with the energy of the original.
Her cast is a talented bunch, but they have more years on them than the original did and some of the shock value of that original was the youth-culture-takes-on-the-adults element of the first production that seemed outrageous.
Playing the Lyndon Johnson part (the title role of MacBird) in 1967 was a 26-year-old Stacy Keach (yes, the same Stacy Keach who played TV's private eye Mike Hammer in the 1980s and who earned four Helen Hayes Award nominations in the 1990s). The new production features a more mature, more polished Joe Cronin in the role. He's very good — but he's not a shockingly disrespectful youth mocking his President.
So, too, is Charlotte Akin very good, but not quite very shockingly young in the role of Lady MacBird, who sees a trip by the current President, John Ken O'Dunc, to the MacBird Ranch as an opportunity for advancement for herself, her husband and her brood of birds.
PROJECTING A MORE YOUTHFUL look are the three actors who play the roles of the Ken O'Dunc brothers, John, Bobby and Teddy. Best of the bunch is Joshua Drew as youthful Bobby, but Robert Rector is suitably vigorous as John and Steven McWilliams has great fun with this early caricature of younger brother Teddy. (His salute during the funeral scene, so reminiscent of the famous picture of John Jr. saluting JFK's coffin, is an effective touch.)
No version of "Macbeth" would be complete without the trio of witches and this off-shoot "MacBird!" offers a hip version of "double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble" that is matched by a Credence Clearwater beat. It is delivered with a sly touch by Maura Stadem, J.J. Area and Theodore M. Snead.
The skill with which Garson constructed her play was probably overlooked at the time of its first production — overshadowed by the cheek of the topic and of the production itself.
She built a very polished satire out of bits and pieces of Shakespearean dialogue strung on the frame of one of his most famous dramas. Now that the audacity has dimmed, the quality of the craftsmanship finally gets the attention it deserves.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.