Thursday, September 11, 2008

Macbeth, Austin Shakespeare, Sept. 10-21

Austin Shakespeare converts the Rollins Theatre into a vast haunted playing space for its scary, hopped-up version of Macbeth, playing only this weekend and next. Shakespeare’s play of visions, equivocation and relentless, destroying time is in this production a gorgeously imagined vision, one that with its disjunct setting plays on some of America’s deepest fears.

Macbeth – A Global Perspective is the tag. Dressed in contemporary combat fatigues and moving through a capacious stage space defined by curtains of twisting ribbons of transparent plastic, the company suggests any of many scenes of bloody combat brought relentlessly into our living rooms – Rwanda, Srebrenica, Colombia, Chechnya, just to name a few.

A confession: I was deeply suspicious of this approach. Wouldn’t it be too facile to push off this murderous story to the unclean corners of the Third World? I expected a nasty sort of cultural voyeurism, comforting us with our own sense of comity and civilization.

But it works. Director Ann Ciccolella maintains the integrity of the text, with all references to Scotland and England, thanes and lords; the attacking army indeed approaches through Birnham Wood instead of through the jungle or veldt or rainforest. The play’s “globalization” is largely visual, dressed out with some occasional clever bits of staging taking advantage of cell phones, text messaging, bottles of potent little pills, an imagined troop transport and the horrific assassination of Banquo with a plastic bag over the head.

These anachronisms do not fundamentally disturb the aggressive momentum of the play. Some of them did create stirs of recognition or surprised laughter from the mostly young audience at Wednesday’s opening.

Ciccolella and the strong cast give us the shivers by establishing with these touches that dissemblers, equivocators and violence are just as present in our day as in the early 15th century. The use of bamboo poles for the murky wood and the forest of Dunsinane may evoke the FARC in Colombia or the destroyers of Sierra Leon, but the battle dress both irregular and formal could equally suggest U.S. forces in Vietnam or the Texas National Guard today.

Sharron Bower as Lady Macbeth sets the intensity and speed of the play. And “speed” it is – this pill-popping, text-messaging, sex-hungry, vital woman is a scarier witch than any of the three weird sisters. She seizes their auguries as guarantees for any bloody business and stampedes Macbeth into the murder of Duncan. She is so hot for her man that their brief discussion of the murder plot is all but lost in embraces before she hauls him offstage by the belt buckle. Lust becomes blood lust.

Marc Pouhé as Macbeth, enamored of the witches’ promises, is a formidable presence. In other productions, your Macbeth pauses to express apprehension about the conflict between duty and ambition. Aflame for his Lady, this Thane doesn’t much question the undertaking.

Pouhé delivers the first key soliloquy on that dilemma (“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/ It were done quickly”) as a declaration of intent, with moral considerations appended as an executive summary. He does not so much bend to Lady Macbeth’s immediate challenge to his manhood as wrap himself around her. Similarly, he does not dawdle or stop for thought when he sees the imaginary dagger before him – the mid-passage of that soliloquy (“Thou marshal'st me the way that I was going/And such an instrument I was to use”) is the driving theme to the speech, a brief preliminary to bloody action.

Regret does not appear until it is too late, when Macbeth emerges from Duncan’s quarters, holding a bloody dagger in either hand.

With his muscular magnetism, Pouhé makes us complicit with Macbeth. He delivers key soliloquies directly to the audience, usually downstage center a scant yard from the first row of spectators. Another proof of his leadership is the scene of his recruitment and instruction of the murderers. They stiffen into military attention before him, and he tongue lashes them with the intimate verbal violence of a Marine drill sergeant. But once he reads in their souls terror and resentment toward Banquo, Macbeth relents, considers, and gathers them into a close, quiet huddle to explain the urgency of exterminating Banquo and his son Fleance.

At this first appearance before a full and unsuspecting audience, the cast for this fast-moving, hopped-up epic may have had its nerves stretched one notch too tight. Soldiers and captains on stage tended to jump in over-sudden fashion upon seeing unannounced visits (“Who comes here?” & etc.). In Acts III and IV as action accelerated, so did speech, with some loss of intelligibility.

The visual design of this show is superb, including both the minimalist setting and the lighting. Costumes for the weird sisters were hallucinatory, suggesting materials scavaged from a dump, patched and worn as deteriorating shrouds. They writhed across the deadly space of the stage. Opening the second half of the play, their dance and the accompanying aria of Hecate were a special treat.

Also of special note:

The banquet scene, initially played with Banquo as an invisible presence, gave us the view of the alarmed guests, who see Macbeth twitch and fret as in a fit; Ciccolella then switches perspective on us, as if putting us into Macbeth’s eyes by bringing on the bloody Banquo, invisible to the others. (I see one point of contention for the staging of this scene. Although in his first speech Macbeth tells his officers to sit, not even in the imagined hell-world of this play would they remain seated as their king, afoot, went through a lengthy seizure with hallucinations.)

Ben Wolfe as Macduff (right) plays the full range of emotion in the sequence in Act IV, Scene III as Malcolm tests his integrity with false self-accusations and then Ross arrives to deliver news of the murder of Macduff’s family. Wolfe was in fine, credible control of extremes that other actors might have turned into scenery-chewing. All his visage wanned, tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, a broken voice, and his whole form suiting with forms to his conceit.

The fight scenes showed us actors at their most agile but had enough ballet and visible one-two-three to require some indulgence. Significantly better than those multiple engagements was the final set-to between Macbeth and Macduff.

Sean Martin made the most of his role as the drunken porter awakened by knocking at the fatal hour of Duncan’s murder. This is a jester’s role, comic relief for an apprehensive audience, and he got into our faces (and into one of our laps!).

In her sleepwalking scene Shannon Bower as Lady Macbeth wrung our hearts. This was no mere mumbling and hand washing. This highly emotive actress, staring blindly into the audience, relived Duncan’s death in stunned psychotic fervor.

Austin Shakespeare is no cavalier purveyor of spectacle. The company has announced presentations on Shakespeare and related topics to take place in advance of each performance. After each presentation, the cast and staff gather for Q&A and exchanges with those audience members who will linger the 5 minutes or so needed to change out of costumes.

At Wednesday night’s post-play discussion, one spectator commented on the “cinema-like” quality of the staging. Upon reflection, I think she put her finger on exactly the point for which I would both praise this production and castigate it.

Like contemporary cinema or, God help us, broadcast news, this Macbeth was swift, spectacular and non-reflective. Great entertainment. And behind that glistening surface there are so many, many themes and moral questions unexplored, leaped over in the dash to the finale.

Highly recommended. Both for the ride and as food for thought.

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