Saturday, October 24, 2009

review of *Macbeth*

[photo: Who needs the damn spot to get washed out now? Peter Macon and Robin Goodrin Nordli will be your hosts tonight -- and they always have such charming dinner parties at the Macbeths']

review of Macbeth
Oct. 23, at OSF

In a production, better than most, of a notoriously difficult-to-stage tragedy, director Gale Edwards has underscored the play’s obsession with doubleness and equivocation and has scoured the text in order to make inventive changes.
The three witches — looking rather silly in white fright wigs — have their opening incantation intercut with bustling swordplay battles. Macduff subs in for the Bloody Sergeant who reports Macbeth’s first victory, giving the Thane of Glamis’s biggest rival a more prominent part early on. Fleance is characterized at first as a mama’s boy, unwilling even so much as to touch his daddy’s (Banquo’s) sword; later on, he escapes a murder attempt, of course, grows a pair and joins in the gathering of jackbooted, quasi-Nazi military types who crowd the final scene — just in time for the three witches, in Edwards’ final image, to extend their arms right at him. (At least I think it was him; if not, it was Donalbain, Malcolm’s brother, with Edwards echoing the ending of Roman Polanski’s 1971 “Playboy” film — either way, the point is that the cycle of vengeance and ambition’s murders will go on, just as we’re told they have in the opening, with all the business about the Thane of Cawdor’s treachery and Macbeth’s sudden ascent).
Lady Macduff joins her husband in the knocking-after-the-murder scene, likewise giving her some earlier stage time before she gets killed off by Macbeth’s henchmen (here, by being forced to swallow gasoline).
There were also three junior witches (unexplained, really, unless they are the future generation of witchcraft) and some cool effects with pulling the specters of children and crowned kings out of the central cauldron.

[photo: from; one of the little-girl junior witches dangles a dagger before the eyes of Peter Macon as Macbeth]

Another definite highlight was Scott Bradley’s set, with lava rock rimming the stage’s front (but with skeletal bones sticking out here and there), then an inlaid marble charm circle, black and starred, in which both the Weyward Women and their human avatars, Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, can conjure evil and perform their spells; and finally, a grand curving staircase, deformed and finally giving out, its railings crazily jutting out like twisted railroad ties, leading up to a bumpy, out-of-kilter ramp, supported only by angular, skimpy bars and boulders, leading up to the room where Duncan’s throat is slit.
Bobo didn’t see Peter Macon’s Othello here last summer, but his Macbeth gave the general impression: stalwart and stocky, bass-voiced, rolling eyes for sarcasm and for disbelief, an almost hair-trigger athleticism, high-pitched vocal tricks to add comedic daubs here and there. As with the rest of the show, Macon’s performance displays much to admire and some to dislike.
Macon commands attention and has an amazing vocal instrument. After the Act Four meetup with the witches and the parade of freaky children with hydrocephalous, oversized heads, he runs around with the witches’ painted hand-imprints on him, some weird necklace jangling around his neck: a man possessed.
The final sword battle with Macduff has Macon walking off, swordless, nihilistic -- until Macduff uses the same taunt (you’re such a scaredy-cat) that Lady M. had used earlier to goad her husband on. It was more of a death-wish final battle than I’d seen before, with Macbeth, defiant to the last, spitting at his tormentors before they surrounded him and -- in about as realistic a manner as I’ve ever seen onstage -- beheaded him and lofted his “head” above on swordpoint.
But Macon overdoes the athleticism. This is a Macbeth who can’t swagger offstage or pace determinedly -- he’s always running, even near the depressed end, at one point, in an affected way, kicking his lead foot out in front, parallel to the ground, preparing for an exit with a stylized goose-step.
Robin Goodrin Nordli (the best Viola I’ve ever seen, anywhere, and brilliantly hilarious last summer here in the title role of The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler; not to mention I’ve long had a crush on her, though she’s married to Michael Elich, who’s playing Harold Hill in The Music Man here this season, and who I saw walking through the lobby, unnoticed, even as his face was on large video screens touting this year’s shows) ... Nordli may have relied on comic mannerisms too much too early. She’s a beautiful blonde who looks great in formal gowns, even if Murell Horton’s design for the banquet scene made Mrs. Macbeth resemble, a bit too much, the evil stepmother in Sleeping Beauty.
I would have preferred more icy control in the early persuasion scenes -- right after warning her husband not to betray their intentions with his behavior (“To alter favor ever is to fear”), Nordli stage-grimaces at the first hint of Duncan’s credulously relying on the Macbeths’ hospitality. They got the passion right (making out, sprawling on the staircase upon his first returning home).
The sleepwalking scene, however, was highly effective: torn white baggy sleeping gown, hair down, face smeared, freaky eyes, not overdone.
But Macbeth may just be an impossible play to get entirely right: the familiar lines, the Grand Guignol, the occasional attempts at humor seeming self-conscious, the one deliberate attempt at humor (the Porter) relying on contemporary allusions that you’d have to look up in footnotes unless you had seen Equivocation just that afternoon.

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At October 30, 2009 10:56 AM , Anonymous Weyward Macbeth said...

For a fascinating survey of the ways in which Shakespeare's tragedy has been adapted in the United States, see the forthcoming essay collection "Weyward Macbeth":

The OSF production is noted briefly in the Appendix.


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