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Theatre in Review: Macbeth (Classical Theatre of Harlem/Richard Rodgers Amphitheater)

Roslyn Ruff. Photo: Richard Termine.

Drums pound, machetes are flashed, and the bodies pile up in Carl Cofield's production of The Scottish Play. Here, it's not so Scottish: The action has been moved to a country very much like Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie. The action has been heavily streamlined; at a running time of about an hour and forty-five minutes, this may be the shortest Macbeth you will ever see. The scenes are tied together with sinuous choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, of Elisa Monte Dance, adding a percussive undertone to the battle scenes and stabbing the air with sharp, discordant strings that bring to mind Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho.

There's plenty of sweep in Cofield's staging. The weird sisters are a trio of masked harpies who appear on the gallery level of Christopher and Justin Swader's distressed, heavily louvered set, accompanied by hellish projected images of smoke and fire, their voices distorted by reverb; in one scene, they appear as shadows, seemingly clawing at the walls. The appearance of Banquo's ghost, covered in gauzy white fabric even as ghostly images of him appear upstage, is a skillful exercise in horror. The climactic encounter presents Macbeth and Macduff as two battle-weary warriors, both seemingly exhausted by the atrocities that have brought them to this terrible place, even as they engage in a fight to the finish.

And yet, for all its speed and spectacle, this production goes a long way toward illuminating the shifting relationship between Macbeth and his too-ambitious wife. I've always thought of Lady Macbeth as a kind of trap for actresses: She comes on strong in the early scenes, then drops out of the action for a long time, only to reappear, hopelessly transformed, in the sleepwalking scene. In this production, Roslyn Ruff's Lady Macbeth is, at first, clearly the stronger of the two -- she's all business, even if the business is murder -- clutching her husband's arms as if to give him a transfusion of willpower. It seems to work; after she advises him to "screw your courage to the sticking place," he grabs her by the neck, seemingly choking her, than plants a passionate kiss on her lips.

It's a classic case of be careful what you wish for: Ruff's Lady Macbeth, for all her murderous plotting, is a cool customer, a control freak vitally interested in keeping the lid on the combustible situation in which she finds herself; even as she forcibly maintains her royal composure, there's a look of fear in her eyes. And for good reason: Something terrible happens to Ty Jones' Macbeth, who, at first, comes across as almost mild-mannered; having found himself "in blood stepp'd in so far," he soon acquires a taste for it. This Lady Macbeth is willing to kill to advance her husband's interests, but she's not ready to make a career of it; when her husband brusquely dismisses her plot to murder Banquo, the look on her face is that of a partner being cast aside. And with each new crime, Jones' Macbeth is increasingly eaten up with fury, finally descending to an almost animal-like state. (If he ever has any interest in playing Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones, I have no doubt he would make a scaldingly memorable impression.) When we get to the sleepwalking scenes, Lady Macbeth's madness seems thoroughly motivated. Exhausted from trying to control her maddened spouse, and party to a string of horrors, her isolation has driven her mad.

There are also solid contributions by Emmanuel Brown as a too-trusting Banquo; Brandon Carter, initially callow, then bent on revenge, as Malcolm; and Jason Delane, as Macduff, choked with rage at the slaughter of his family. Andrea Patterson makes an appealing, dignified Lady Macduff and Anthony Vaughn Merchant earns some laughs as the Porter, taking liberties with the script and working a couple of jokes about Donald Trump and Bill Cosby into his brief appearance.

In addition to creating an evocative environment, the Swaders' set also facilitates many of Alan C. Edwards' lighting effects -- for example, the red wash that bleeds through the louvers whenever royalty makes an entrance. Katherine Freer's projections fill the stage without hijacking one's attention, no small feat. Besides her array of authentic-looking military uniforms, Rachel Dozier-Ezell's costumes deftly chart Lady Macbeth's evolution, progressing from a gaudily patterned day dress in the first scene to the gilded gown that marks her first entrance as queen, and a rather-more-subdued outfit for her nighttime terrors. John McKenna's sound design provides the strong reinforcement needed for an outdoor theatre in New York City.

This was my first experience with this company, and clearly its members are not afraid to provide a classic play with a boldly stylized profile while remaining fundamentally true to the text. Given its headlong pace, this would be an excellent production with which to introduce a young person to Shakespeare. But audiences of all ages will be able to appreciate how lucidly the production charts each of Macbeth's downward steps into a personal circle of hell from where there is seemingly no escape. -- David Barbour

(25 July 2016)

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