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Macbeth Revisited

Shakespeare Revisited emphasizes our need not only as theatre artists but as a community to tell this story once again. The hope is perhaps this time we will discover a way to break the cycle of fear and narcissism that brings us to violence and inhumanity toward each other.— actor and director Jack Stehlin.
Jack Stehlin and Vanessa Waters. (Photo credit Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin)
Jack Stehlin, Shakespeare aficionado and Artistic Director of New American Theatre is a thoughtful and talented artist, but in the above-quoted press note, he has it wrong. "Breaking the cycle of fear and narcissism?" That would be appropriate in the context of a certain Oval Office leader, perhaps, but if we removed said qualities from the stage, there would be no Macbeth and wouldn't that be a tragedy!

Thankfully, NAT's 100-minute sometimes-gender-bending production of Shakespeare's Scottish Play contains plenty of fear and narcissism as well as the requisite amount of terror, bloody ambition, fevered regret and everything else that makes the play and its hero and heroine immortal. Stehlin, who also directs, is a cerebral Macbeth who journeys convincingly from henpecked husband to murderous man of action, and Vanessa Waters as his equally bloody Lady M matches him slash for slash. We'll have more on them presently.

NAT's production at the Sacred Fools space is not especially daring or creative. NAT has once again enlisted the services of frequent collaborator John Farmanesh-Bocca, whose Redux versions of Shakespeare's plays often contain dizzyingly offbeat staging and interpretations. But Farmanesh-Bocca is the choreographer and sound designer here, not the director, and except for an opening montage that has the entire cast writhing in a cluster on the ground as if in hellfire, the production largely lacks his imprint. Instead, Stehlin, as director, delivers a production that is tightly crafted, business-like in its efficiency and very much Shakespeare's tale, "revisited" or otherwise. Stehlin, the actor, is its biggest draw.

The color scheme employed by set designer Robert Broadfoot and costumer Kitty Rose is heavy on black, with the exception of the witches' hot red drape-like scarves which match a few velvety backdrops. Our three weird sisters are men (Brendan Brandt, Dennis Gersten and Jordan Lund) who resemble Cossack priests and sit unmoving at the back of the stage like some sort or tribunal. King Duncan's two sons Malcolm (Jade Sealy) and Donalbain (Jenny Lerner) are played by (but not as) women. Ditto Susan Ziegler's Banquo and his son Fleance (Frannie Morrison). This gender-neutral casting feels arbitrary here rather than in the service of a dramatic statement, but since nobody in the cast sticks out as being hugely out of place, the move doesn't draw undue attention either.

Shakespeare didn't mess around much with side plots or extraneous characters in Macbeth and Revisited also keeps things moving forward. In their fourth act confab, Malcolm and Macduff (Patrick Vest, shambling and reluctantly heroic) take a refreshingly short time to move from ruminating to receiving the news of the Macduff family murders to settling on revenge. Somewhat surprisingly, given the textual edits and its overall brevity, the production has left in every word of the drunken Porter's monolog affording a red-nosed David Purdham (who also plays Duncan) the chance to display his comic chops.

The Sacred Fools space (formerly the Elephant Theatre) is essentially a black box. While providing plenty of intimacy, the space likely doesn't offer the same technical capabilities as previous venues where Farmanesh-Bocca has staged earlier Shakespeare Reduxes.

Ghostly effects and apparitions are often Macbeth production staples, but you won't find them here. Again, not a problem. Even if we in the audience don't hear the cries of night or see the daggers and spirits, Stehlin and Waters give us plenty of insight into what the husband and wife who set these events into motion are experiencing.

In Waters' performance we see Lady M's ambition bubbling to the surface from the moment she reads her husband's letter detailing the "Thou shalt be king" prophecy. That said, her husband's perceived meekness is an equally sharp spur. She may have the blood of a tigress running through her veins, but here is a woman who does the deed because her husband won't. Her goading helps move Stehlin's initially-meek Macbeth into a man of action. Once he has committed his first murder, Stehlin's king shucks off any fear or guilt. By the time he is grabbing Waters by her belt to usher her off the stage, the roles in their domestic power structure have reversed. And upon hearing news of his lady's death, Stehlin's king has hardened. The "sound and fury" speech" is delivered by a king who barely regrets that he has no time to mourn.

We can always look forward to the next time NAT enters the Shakespearean sandbox. 2016's Tempest Redux recently scored 11 Stage Raw nominations. Perhaps for the next go-round, the company will revisit a comedy.

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Macbeth Revisited by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jack Stehlin

Cast: Varda Appleton, Brendan Brandt, Chelsea Brandt, Dennis Gersten, Jenny Lerner, Jordan Lund, Frannie Morrison, Cesar Sebastian, David Purdham, Mark Richardson, Elise Robertson, Jade Sealy, Patrick Vest, Vanessa Waters and Susa Ziegler.
Set Design: Robert Broadfoot
Costume Design and Props: Kitty Rose
Production Stage Manager: Jonas Newhouse
Original Music/Sound Designer: Marshall McDaniel
Lighting Designer: Derrick McDaniel
Special Prop Fabrication and Design: Elise Robertson
Sound Design and Choreographer: John Farmanesh-Bocca
Plays through May 14, 2017 at the Second Stage at Sacred Fools Theater, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 455-3723,
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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