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Theatre in Review: Makbet (Dzieci Theatre)/Neighbors (INTAR/InViolet Theatre)

Makbet. Photo: Troy Hahn

The Scottish Play becomes The Gypsy Tragedy in this eccentric production of Shakespeare's drama. Whatever you think of it, I guarantee that you've never seen Macbeth staged like this: You arrive at Sure We Can, described in the press release as "a non-profit recycling center, community space and sustainability hub in Bushwick, Brooklyn where canners (people that collect cans and bottles from streets to make a living) come together with students and neighbors through recycling, composting, gardening and arts."

On arrival, you find the cast and audience members seated in a circle in the space's courtyard, learning gypsy folk songs. A bottle of vodka is passed around, along with what I think were pieces of kielbasa. There's plenty of good-natured ribbing among the actors, all of whom affect Romany accents. The mood is mellow, friendly, melodic. You might not think this the most effective way of getting the audience ready for a blood-soaked tragedy, but in fact the players are pulling everyone in, getting them ready to participate in the game that follows.

And a game it is. The audience enters a shipping container, which contains seating at either end, and are told the rules. Three actors -- one man and two women -- are the designated principals, with another four serving as members of the chorus. The rules are as follows: (1) Actors must know the entire text; (2) Actors may not play the same roles in successive sequences; (3) Roles can be taken or given, embraced or refused; (4) Three actors alone will play the principal roles; (5) The production begins and ends in ceremony; (6) Nothing else is planned. To avoid confusion, each role is defined by a single prop or costume piece: a fedora for Macbeth, a blood-red wrap for Lady Macbeth, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses for Malcolm. These are handed around to the principals as each role is assumed.

What follows is a heavily edited version of Macbeth, running just short of 90 minutes. (If you're not familiar with the text, this will not provide a good introduction.) I'd like to say that this production, which is heavily rooted in the ideas of such thinkers as Jerzy Grotowski, provides a freshly gripping take on one of Shakespeare's most compelling tragedies -- but, for me, the moment of revelation never arrived. Part of this had to do with the sheer discomfort of sitting on a milk crate in a dark, stuffy metal container, with air quality that noticeably deteriorated over the course of the evening. (If you're claustrophobic, don't even think of attending.) Part of it had to do with the lighting, or lack thereof: For the most part, the action unfolds under the glare of a single theatrical unit (with a blue gel) plus a small number of flashlights. The biggest problem, I think, is that, even with these technically skilled performers in charge, this production doesn't offer new insights that would justify its radically simplified approach. In my experience, the best Macbeths make use of a certain amount of pageantry -- the better for us to understand the title character's ambition and also to make clear that the fate of a nation is at stake -- but there is no reason to believe that this sort of staging couldn't work. Here, however, the necessary dramatic intensity is never achieved and the gypsy atmosphere comes to seem like an affectation; the best thing about Makbet is its fast pace. Matt Mitler, one of the principals, also adapted the text and directed.

From gypsy tragedy to immigration satire: Neighbors: A Fair Trade Agreement unfolds in a suburban Neverland where Joe, a wealthy, WASPy businessman, lives next door to José, a Mexican day laborer. (In Raul Abrego's clever set design, a creek provides the boundary between their two yards.) At first, their relationship is rocky: Joe objects to José washing his hands in the creek; later, when José admits to suffering financial reverses, Joe gives him a thousand dollars -- and is appalled when José spends a couple hundred of it on a boom box to serenade him while he does his yard work. Joe explains that the money could have been put to better use; José responds that the music makes him happy, with no other justification needed. Repeatedly he asks Joe, "Why do you act so much like a gringo?"

Things get really complicated when oil is discovered on José's property and the two men form a partnership. This cues a series of drunken evenings and confessions -- about the collapse of Joe's marriage and the death of José's son, among other things -- as the two men fall into something that looks like friendship. Don't think that things won't go sour, however, as issues having to do with exploitation, pollution, and disease are raised; before the play is over, their Good Neighbor Policy will have descend into pitched battle.

Clearly, Neighbors is about the long-running, rarely equal, up-and-down relationship between the US and its neighbors to the south, about which the playwright, Bernardo Cubria, has surprisingly little new to say. For most of its running time, as it reiterates all the usual points, Neighbors is stranded between being a naturalistic buddy comedy and a political allegory, never managing to be funny or pointed enough. Given the uptight, overly rational Joe and José, with his easy access to gutsy emotions and a live-for-today philosophy, the play boils down to a clash of stereotypes. (No non-Latino playwright could ever get away with writing a character like José.) This might have been amusing if Neighbors was a full-out spoof, but, much of the time, we are asked to sympathize with their individual heartbreaks. In any case, the laughs are few and far between; the climax, filled with violence and epithets, feels like a desperate bid for relevance.

Under Lou Moreno's direction, which strives to maintain a bright comic tone, no matter what, the actors do their best with characters who are pitched halfway between real people and outright caricatures. Andrew Blair captures Joe's cheerful, businesslike manner, which he has been practicing for so long that he has lost track of its essential falseness; he also has a nice bit on the phone with his wife, from whom he is separated -- a scene that seems to have come from an earlier, more serious draft. Gerardo Rodriguez nails José's earthy, garrulous manner; he is especially good near the end, when he coolly faces Joe with a bill of accusations. The rest of the production, include Andrea Hood's costumes, Christina Watanabe's lighting, and Bart Fasbender's sound are all solid.

But all the good effort involved can't stop Neighbors from coming off as an extended, unfunny satiric sketch. It's a missed opportunity; given the current political atmopshere, the time is right for a look at America's mixed-up relationship with those would leave their countries to live here. It's a most tempting target -- and it needs something more bracing than the quirky odd-couple treatment it gets here. -- David Barbour

(2 October 2017)

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