Ethan Hawke has been surprising theatergoers for years, plugging his febrile, hot-wired persona into memorable performances of Shakespeare and Chekhov, Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard.
Director Jack O'Brien and Lincoln Center Theater have been inextricable from Hawke's transformation into a major theater actor, both in a 2003 "Henry IV" that remains a beacon of American Shakespeare and, three years later, in Stoppard's monumental "The Coast of Utopia."
Thus, when the theater announced that O'Brien would direct Hawke in "Macbeth," one may be forgiven for assuming they had an urgent reason to revisit the play that New York has seen so often in recent years.
As it turns out, that reason is not Hawke, who is oddly uncharismatic and too internalized to grab the spotlight from the tall, stark, elegantly vaulting set designed by Scott Pask. Nor is the wraithlike, well-spoken, thoughtlessly driven Lady Macbeth of Anne-Marie Duff, the fine British actress in her American debut, at the galvanizing center.
In fact, the stars of this "Macbeth" are the supernatural creatures whose presence dominates -- even overshadows -- all the mortals in a throbbing parallel universe of witches, Hecate the Queen Witch (a character often omitted) and an entourage of furry thingies that suggest a road company of "Cats."
And these weird sisters don't just squat around a cauldron and poof away. Played by men -- John Glover, Byron Jennings and Malcolm Gets -- they have long, womanly white hair, beards and zombie makeup. Glover's witch wears a fetching black negligee under his rags.
They are also embedded as characters in the court and on the battlefield, occasionally looking up in a sophisticated, impish way to make a scary face or wink. Some of this feels smart and fresh. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest of the low points is Glover leading a "knock-knock" joke with the audience.
On the far brighter side is Richard Easton, arguably New York's foremost classicist, making King Duncan a man we actually mourn when Macbeth assassinates him. Brian D'Arcy James makes a suitably sympathetic Banquo while Daniel Sunjata is seriously pumped-up with old-time theatricality as Macduff.
Catherine Zuber's costumes range in period from Edwardian for the men to knockout strapless modernity for Lady Macbeth. The shiny round black floor is imprinted with a Middle Age design said to signify planetary magic. Oh, and Macbeth smokes a pipe with the witches as they put a spell on him. If you think about it, which may not be advisable, this gets him off the hook for all the slaughter. I suspect Shakespeare may not have been so forgiving.
WHERE Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center
INFO $77-$157; 212-239-6200; lct.org.
BOTTOM LINE The witches upstage Hawke's Macbeth.