First Nighter: London's Impressive "Macbeth," "The Taming of the Shrew," Charlene James's "Cuttin' It," Daniel Evans's Sizzling "Show Boat"

London--Emma Rice, formerly the joint artistic director of the superb Kneehigh company, is now the Globe Theatre artistic director and offering her first season after the departure of Dominic Dromgoole, who succeeded Mark Rylance.

Judged by the productions of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew, she's happy to encourage some of the same offbeat creative notions she pursued with her previous group. She's quoted as saying that when she took the job, she immediately called Iqbal Khan to take on Macbeth, otherwise known to superstitious theater people as "The Scottish play." (An article in the program itemizes the reasons why a tragedy taking place in a bloody Scotland remains much more English in the writing than Scottish. Of course, it does. Shakespeare was English.)

Rice was right about Khan's thinking up a few intriguing notions. Perhaps the most unusual was including not three weird sisters (Shakespeare never uses the word "witch") but four. And they do plenty with a large black shroud that keeps appearing, as sometimes manipulated by strings, to cover and uncover ominous objects.

The Macbeths of vaulting ambition are played by Ray Fearon and Tara Fitzgerald, whom Game of Thrones fans know. They make a hot-to-trot couple, until their guilt after murdering Duncan (Sam Cox, a nearly joke-y King Duncan) is eating at their innards.

Fearon is an ideal-looking Macbeth, physical imposing--"physique-ically" imposing might be a better way of putting it. During the earlier scenes, when he encounters the weird dames and hears of his prospects, his rejoicing as the predictions materialize is fun to watch. For much of his performance, however, he gives the impression that he knows he's delivering famous lines and must take great care in presenting them slowly and surely.

Fitzgerald is a brass-tacks Lady Macbeth from the beginning, seeing clearly what must be done and then doing it. That renders her descent into madness all the more disturbing. Her rubbing away those imaginary bloodstains is mesmerizing. Among the supporting cast, Freddie Stewart is a young, forceful Malcolm, and Nadia Albina has a funny attack on the Porter, who even gets around to telling Donald Trump jokes.
Also at the Globe, Edward MacLiam and Aoife Duffin are the battling Petruchio and Katherine in Caroline Byrne's dark-ish take on The Taming of the Shrew. Nowadays, the Shakespeare crowd arrives at the opus primed to find out how a director will treat the women-as-inferior-to-men comedy(?!) in a post-feminist age.

When the denouement arrives, and Katherine gives her speech about women's subordination to the male, Byrne meets the challenge with surprising ease, but her solution won't be described here. By the way, some of it involves the wedding dress Chiara Stephenson has devised, which possibly takes a worse beating than Katherine does during the sequences where Petruchio is demonstrating his strategy for the most effective shrew-taming methods. In 2016, they're certainly not pretty to watch.

Throughout, Byrne comes up with effective sight gags. For one, she contrives it so that Katherine and Bianca (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in an adorably mope-y performance) are so adept at manipulating their father Baptista (Gary Lilburn) that they literally have him jumping rope. So chalk up one for the women against the men.
It's impossible to write about Charlene James's Cuttin' It, at the Royal Court, without mentioning it takes up the subject of genital mutilation. Nevertheless, I didn't know that's where the 75-minute play was heading, and the offbeat title with its jaunty apostrophe wasn't giving me any clues.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that the young women in the audience were prepared for the subject matter--but maybe not so prepared that at least two of them left before the harrowing end. Be warned.

My situation meant I was lulled by the initial scenes into thinking that what I was about to witness was the developing friendship of two immigrants in England from Somalia. They're Muna (Adelayo Adedayo), who's assimilated with grit and gusto, and Iqra (Tsion Habte), who's still committed to her heritage.

Both 15-year-olds, who are at the same school in a downscale neighborhood, feel slightly alienated among their classmates and express as much in a series of opening monologues. Eventually, they approach each other diffidently. The meeting occurs shortly after Muna decides that their shared background provides an opportunity to bring up the fear she's experiencing for her sister, about to turn 7 and likely facing the same terrifying mutilation she endured.

What Muna doesn't realize is that Iqra, whose family has been wiped out and lives with a mysterious woman, firmly believes in the tradition. That's when, in James's unflinching play, the incipient bonding is jeopardized. Nothing further will be divulged here, other than to say Gbolahan Obisesan directs unflinchingly and receives equally unflinching performances from Adedayo and Habte in a play no one sitting horrified through will soon forget.
The Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II Show Boat is generally conceded to be the musical comedy that converted the genre into a serious art form. Less frequently heard is an argument that the classic is also the greatest of the 20th-century musical comedies. All the same, a strong case could be made that it is. In fact, a strong brief for just that is being presented in Daniel Evan's production at the New London.

To be sure, there have been stupendous productions in the past, Florenz Ziegfeld's original 1927 production surely among them. But the Evans approach has to be up there with the very best since then.

To begin with, there's the score, which is sung to consistently stunning effect by Gina Beck as Magnolia Hawks, Chris Peluso as Gaylord Ravenal, Rebecca Trehearn as Julie La Verne, Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, Sandra Marvin as Queenie, Danny Collins as Frank Schultz and Alex Young as Ellie May Chipley. Needless to say, it's very hard to go wrong with a show in which "Ol' Man River" (perhaps the greatest song ever written for an American musical and here sung by Joe and male chorus with profound passion) is immediately followed by "Can' Help Lovin' Dat Man," jubilantly delivered by Magnolia, Julie, Queenie and the joyfully shuffling company.

Evans puts his own spin on a plot lifted from Edna Ferber's novel of the same name. Throughout, he intentionally plays up the racial strife Hammerstein was intent on portraying. Giving tweaks to Hammerstein's book about life on the Mississippi and then in Chicago between 1886 and 1928 he begins by bringing the entire cast on stage to sing parts of "Ol' Man River." Then he arranges the white players to face the black players. It's the first sign that here's a director who knows what he's about.

Surely flashy choreographer Alistair David deserves some credit for the immediate confrontational look. And that's only for starters on a luscious set that Lez Brotherston designed and to which Tim Reid added projections, many of which feature newspaper headlines drawing attention to civil rights failures.

It may be that today some of Ferber's plot twists are creaky, as Hammerstein has transcribed them, but in the face of so much magnificence, that cavil can only provoke an annoyed "So what?!"