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|A CurtainUp Review
Macbeth seems to be getting more and more contemporary all the time. Had psychology been a profession in Shakespeare's day he could as easily have drawn his characters from therapeutic case histories as from Hollinshed's chronicles. The story of a man and wife who give vent to blind ambition and are then driven by insecurity and guilt to compound the initial crime resonates as powerfully today as it did in Shakespeare's own time.
Many recent Macbeth productions have used the play's focus on the lust for power and issues of sexual identity as a cue to drastically depart from the traditional characters, setting and time frame. Not so George C. Wolfe. His production remains historically rooted in 11th century Scotland and connects the Elizabethan stage with the audience by seating some spectators in Elizabethan style balconies of the specially reconfigured Martinson Hall. Yet this is a very American sort of production with a tempo that's as quick and pulsing as the tapping in his Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk. Ditto for the stage craft which is as visceral as any big screen murder mystery -- a large gold-framed mirror that at times descends and rises and at one point captures the image of Banquo's ghost is as striking as any more pyrotechnics you're likely to see anywhere. The result is a highly accessible Macbeth, not the psychologically nuanced character study purists prefer, but an action packed, bloody tale of warriors of whom Macbeth just happens to be the one committing the major high crimes and misdemeanors.
Like any good movie -- and this has a movie sensibility, à la Roman Polanski's 1971 bloodbath of a film starring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis and Robert Shaw -- this Macbeth also has two charismatic stars (not surprisingly more famous for their screen than stage work) in Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett. These names over the title . have no doubt contributed to sellout performances from the first preview performances on. Are these roles of the over-ambitious Thane and his lady of the blood-stained hands too ambitious for these actors? Not if you accept the limitations attendant on most Shakespeare plays done with American actors.
Baldwin's weight-lifter physique certainly befits the warrior image which is underscored by the sleeveless black leather vest -- (If Shakespeare lived, he'd probably be recruited as a spokesperson for the leather manufacturers) -- he wears when he first comes on stage declaring "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." This display of physical sinew works as a nice counterpoint to Macbeth's general uncertainty and weak caving in to his wife's prodding to do what without her urging he would probably never have done. Unfortunately his voice hardly has the ring and reach that makes a great Shakespearian actor great, and that does full justice to the poetry that is at the heart of the Bard's enduring genius.
Angela Bassett, gorgeously dressed by costume designer Toni-Leslie James, is also physically imposing. What's more, she has considerable voice power and makes the most of the sexy interplay that has long been integral to the dynamics of the drama. Even her laugh-evoking grab at her husband's crotch as she urges him to harden his resolve -- ("We fail? / But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we will not fail" from Act 4, scene 2, line 60) -- has its precedent not in a Michael Jackson or Liza Minelli video but other somewhat overheated stage interpretations. Lily Langtry in 1889, for example, snuggled seductively in Macbeth's arms as she counseled him to commit a murder most foul. On the other hand, while Baldwin gives a low-key performance which nevertheless projects some of the tortured persona of the king who can no longer trust anyone, Ms. Bassett tends to be too operatic -- (even as opera diva . Lauren Flanigan proved herself a fine understated actress as well as a divine singer in the City Center's opening production of this season -- see link at end of this review). She also seems to literally sleepwalk through the famous scene where she's gone mad, appearing tentative, almost afraid (as if she thinks people are going to laugh) to say "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
Whatever their strengths and shortcomings, both leads bring an undeniable charisma to the production. Furthermore they are not alone in falling short of the poetic nuances of many of the play's best lines. Like many Public Theater productions this one features an ensemble that's ordinary more often than extraordinary. Some notable exceptions : Jeffrey Nordling' as Macduff whose stunned reaction to news of his children's murder is one of the emotional highs of the two and a half hours . . .Liev Schreiber as the living and ghostly Banquo . . . Michael Hall as Malcolm, the one character with a voice to match the demands of the Bard's text.
The scenic design by Riccardo Hernàndez gives strong support throughout to the mood and rhythm of the proceedings. Besides the already mentioned and showiest prop -- the giant mirror-- there's a drop-down section which the three weird sisters (Midori Nakamura, Latonya Borsay and Anna Reeden) use as a supernatural Pandora's box. Lighting designer Scott Zielenski and sound designer Kurt Fischer add to the aura of gloom and bloodshed with unnerving strobe lights, music and banging drums.
The emphasis on action-packed murder mystery over psychological drama which happens to include several murders, seemed to keep several of the younger audience members (including a couple of boys of about ten) from getting restive. Attuned as they are to super heroes and villains, this Macbeth might just induce them to read the play with anticipation rather than groans when it comes up on their required reading list in high school.
For a review of the City Center opera version of Macbeth go here