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Theatre in Review: Macbeth (Longacre Theatre)

Daniel Craig, Michael Patrick Thornton. Photo: Joan Marcus

This is the first Macbeth to come with a warmup act. That's right: Michael Patrick Thornton, who plays Lennox (among other roles), assigned to work the room, chats up the audience, asking everyone how they're feeling and getting them to repeatedly shout out the title of Shakespeare's play. Clearly, everyone involved isn't afraid of the old show business superstition about saying "Macbeth" in a theatre. Maybe they should be.

Anyway, having made it clear that Thane of Cawdor is in the house, Thornton, acting like a good host, provides some historical context, noting that James I, King of England at the time of the play's writing, was obsessed with witches and that Macbeth is one of a pack of masterpieces penned by Shakespeare during a pandemic. (Clearly, he was no slouch in a crisis.) It's an assured piece of shtick, designed to get the audience relaxed and laughing -- just the thing for a tale of a vaulting ambition, ruthless bloodshed, and doom-filled prophecies. The way to dusty death indeed.

(By the way, the Playbill at Macbeth comes with an insert offering a synopsis of the play -- a useful item because, if you haven't seen it before, you may not have the faintest idea of what is happening -- as well as headshots of the cast and lists of their roles. According to it, Lennox is played by Tina Benko, who is not to be found anywhere near the Longacre Theatre these nights. What gives? Did nobody want to spring for a new insert with the correct cast? Already, that famous curse seems to be taking hold.)

If you're bemused by all this, hang on. Sam Gold's production strikes a culinary note. The Witches -- there are five instead of the usual three - are discovered at a table loaded with kitchen implements, whipping up a little something. And what a recipe: A member of the company is strung up and his throat cut. A generous amount of his blood is ladled into the dish being prepared. It's a surprisingly low-key opening, with lines like "Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air," being delivered as casually, as, say, "Hand me the oregano." This scene is not a fluke; the witches cook up trouble all night. For example, the second act begins with an actor at stage center, one of his legs apparently sawed off. A witch stirs up the associated gore in a bucket, which is used to mix what appears to be an exceptionally evil-looking smoothie. If nothing else, this is a Macbeth to put you off your feed.

Overall, a rehearsal room aesthetic prevails. Christine Jones' set appears to be an empty stage (the upstage wall is a piece of scenery), props are few and far between, and the cast mostly wears everyday casual wear. (With only a couple of dumpy upholstered chairs onstage, Duncan's comment, "This castle hath a pleasant seat," is very early reduced to a laugh line.) According to the production's dramaturgs, this approach imitates the unadorned and fluid Elizabethan stage, adding that it "nicely suits the portrayal of a world in which people's motives, loyalties, and true selves are shifting, unstable, and unclear." I'll say: No sooner has Paul Lazar, as Duncan, completed his death throes than he gets up, tears off his fat suit, cracks open a beer, shares a few jokes with audience, and launches into the role of the Porter. As is so often the case at the Longacre these nights, if you know the play, you're golden; if you're a fan of star Daniel Craig and haven't looked at Shakespeare since high school, God help you. (By the way, after Duncan's murder, Craig also pops open a cold one. It would appear that Miller Lite is the official brew of Macbeth.)

While waiting for the staging to gain some momentum, dark questions lurk: Why is the cast so unattractively dressed? Why does Lady Macbeth host a dinner for Duncan and his entourage in a gown seemingly borrowed from Gold Diggers of 1933? What is the meaning of that floor-length fur that Macbeth sports at one point? Why is everyone walking around with fog machines? Why do the crowns worn by Macbeth and his wife resemble the logo for Imperial Margarine?

All right, that last one is on me and my Boomer memories. Nevertheless, this Macbeth is on a par with Gold's other forays into Shakespeare, which include a Hamlet with Polonius sitting on the toilet, an Othello (featuring Craig, an excellent Iago) with several key scenes staged in total darkness, and a King Lear with an onstage string ensemble that undercut some of the play's best speeches. To be sure, Gold is an often-superb director of contemporary plays, but when working with classics he focuses on arbitrary staging gimmicks, paying little or no attention to the characters' relationships or the play's dramatic structure. As usual, the gifted stars must fend for themselves. Craig's Macbeth, however declamatory and lacking in nuance, retains a certain power, and Ruth Negga's Lady Macbeth, a whirlwind of nefarious activity, has her moments, but they occupy separate universes, connecting emotionally only briefly in one scene. Aside from Grantham Coleman's sorrowful, purposeful Macduff and Amber Gray's thoughtful, dignified Banquo, such fine actors as Phillip James Brannon, Maria Dizzia, and Eboni Flowers barely register.

For all the talk of simplicity and flexibility, the production loses its nerve near the end, rolling out a battery of special effects for the final battle: The back wall comes downstage, accompanied by a storm of video projections, blinder cues from the lighting department, and plenty of warlike sound effects. Gold's Shakespeare productions rarely make the best use of the design team, which, in addition to Jones, here includes Suttirat Anne Larlab (costumes), Jane Cox (lighting), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound), and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (projections).

With so many distractions, we never arrive at the horror of two people who, driven by the desire to seize Scotland's throne, become increasingly steeped in blood, and maddened by guilt and uncertainty. It's the mother of all film noir scenarios, a relentless downward slope accentuated by the absence of Shakespeare's usual comic subplots. In the right hands, Macbeth can be as gripping as any thriller by Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. Here, all one notices are the directorial doodads, evidence of a fruitless search for a fresh point of view. Now that I think of it, I guess maybe we needed that warmup act after all. --David Barbour

(6 May 2022)

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