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Theatre in Review: Macbeth (Classic Stage Company)

Nadia Bowers and Corey Stoll. Photo: Joan Marcus

John Doyle's new production of Macbeth is sleek, stripped down, and ready for action; having gotten one of William Shakespeare's darkest tragedies into fighting trim, however, he seems to have no idea what to do with it. in many respects, the director's instincts are clear. He has supplied the simplest of sets, consisting of a thrust stage (with the audience on three sides), dressed only with a throne. The action has been cut down to a fast one hour and forty minutes (sans intermission), a remarkable pace for a play that typically clocks in at forty or fifty minutes longer. Solomon Weisbard's restrained, yet gorgeous, lighting creates an evocatively dank atmosphere, entirely appropriate for a play packed with intrigue and murder and informed by whispers of the occult. From the opening scene, in which the entire company (except for Corey Stoll, who plays the title character) speaks the lines belonging to the weird sisters, it is evident that Doyle's emphasis is on an economy of means designed to place the focus where it belongs, on the text.

But, along with the conceptual froufrou, the director has apparently also thrown out any ideas about the text. This Macbeth has a lean and hungry look, but no real point of view; it is further undermined by a series of uneven performances by a cast whose collective commitment to underplaying often has unwanted results. When the sight of Macbeth and his wife entering, their hands bloodied following the murder of Duncan, produces giggles in the audience, something is off. Similarly, when Macbeth, in thrall to prophecies guaranteeing his safety, kills Young Siward, adding, "Thou was born of woman" -- as if to say, with a shrug, of course you can't kill me -- his blithe assurance landed a laugh at the performance I attended. Blood, horror, the allure of ambition, the fury of revenge -- all have been replaced by a strange sense of detachment; this tale of revenge is a dish served so cold, it is in need of a reheat.

One key reason for this is that Stoll's Macbeth is not a battle-hardened military man irretrievably tempted by ambition and tormented by his crimes. When not standing outside his character altogether, he comes across as a frustrated middle manager impatient for a promotion. The speech that begins with "Is this a dagger I see before me" should be the center of any characterization of Macbeth, reflecting the competing demands of conscience and power lust; here it is given a notably tepid interpretation. Similarly, the character's descent into fury and madness is transformed into a chorus of complaints; he seems less tortured than merely put out. Stoll has his occasional moments -- his sighting of Banquo's ghost is fairly effective -- but the actor's conception of the character is surprisingly lacking in depth as well as access to the darker emotions.

Stoll's Thane of Cawdor is very much under the influence of Nadia Bowers' Lady Macbeth, here presented as the driving force behind the couple's murderous plots. The always-interesting Bowers brings a powerful sensuality to the role, opening herself up voluptuously to the forces of darkness; she is, arguably, the production's true witch. The monomania she displays in the early scenes goes a long way toward clarifying the play's most questionable aspect, Lady M's eleventh-hour descent into madness, for which Shakespeare provided no transition. Here, it's easy to believe that her ambition is so relentless that it pushes her off a mental cliff.

The overall performance has its ups and downs, however, especially those passages delivered so intimately that they are hard to make out. (The stars are not exempt from this.) Raffi Barsoumian, a relatively new face, is a striking and especially well-spoken Malcolm; one hopes he will soon have an opportunity to tackle some of the bigger classical repertory roles. N'Jameh Camara and Antonio Michael Woodard make something tense and urgent of the dialogue between the abandoned Lady Macduff and her son. But Mary Beth Peil doesn't bring much monarchical stature to the role of Duncan, Erik Lochtefeld is rather bland and forgettable as Banquo, and Barzin Akhavan's Macduff is best when in his more furious moments; otherwise, his delivery is rushed and hard to understand. Barbara Walsh is lucid, if low-key, as Ross.

The headlong pace set by Doyle has its undermining aspects as well. For example, the killing of Banquo is hardly over when a feast assembles around his dead body; he remains there until the moment, during the meal, when his spirit rises up to terrify Macbeth. It's a creative approach, but, applied relentlessly, no scene ever has a chance to make an impact before everyone runs off to the next. Robbed of the chance to fully appreciate how, step by step, the Macbeths become so steeped in blood, one never becomes engaged with their terrible story. (This, I think, is the reason for the unwanted laughs.) Overall, there's a remarkable lack of tension for a play involving multiple assassinations and the perilous fate of a kingdom.

The production has other attractive aspects, including Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, with their contemporary lines and narrow color palette informed by suggestions of plaid, and Matt Stine's sound design, which includes the baleful tolling of bells and judicious use of reverb on the company when voicing the witches' lines.

But Doyle's production has succeeded only in draining the blood out of Macbeth. Boiling the play down to its bones should, in theory, result in a piece even starker and more gripping than usual; here, however, it has the opposite effect. -- David Barbour

(28 October 2019)

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