Macbeth – 3.5 Stars

Macbeth, October 3 – November 4, 2012 at the Chevalier Theater in Medford

Review by Claudia A. Fox Tree

“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” There are some sayings that almost everyone from the United States (and many other parts of the world) have heard. However, those same folks might not know exactly where the quote is from. If the line, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” is added, then more people might be able to identify the “play that shall not be named” inside the theater where it is being performed. That’s right. Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) launched its ninth season with William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth at the recently renovated Chevalier Theater in Medford Square. Paula Plum, founding company member, made her ASP directorial debut.

The ability of Shakespeare (1564-1616) to write plays that can be picked up out of one century and space and dropped into another time and place is incredible. Entering any theater set for Shakespeare, makes one wonder what time period the actors will be portraying. What journey is the director planning to take us through? Will it be castles or contemporary? Before the first Act, on the open stage with no curtain, an upstairs attic is conjured with four old and dusty chairs, none of which face the same direction, and tapestries strewn across a rocking horse that sits idle in the corner. On the other side of the stage, an antique brass floor lamp edged with orange fringe stands next to a large wooden radio and harkens the 1940’s. And gas masks lay – wait, gas masks? I really had to think about the time period. Nothing in the program guide set me up, and looking at stage cues left me wondering. The first scene begins in the back of the house as a grieving procession carries a casket toward the stage. Hmmm. The black outfits and umbrellas aren’t very helpful to give gist as to the time period. Then there are soldiers in Jodhpurs; those officer trousers that look like riding pants, so WWI or WWII? I am stumped.

The ASP ensemble of 10 actors plays 23 parts, which means that a few do double or quadruple duty. Allyn Burrows portrays Macbeth, as he descends from mere ignorant ambition into vengeful madness. His appearance and range of performance reminded me of the actor, Jon Voight. Mara Sidmore’s Lady Macbeth is as stunning as her costume changes that finally helped me nail down that this version of Macbeth is set in the 1920’s. In one scene, she wears flowing periwinkle grey chiffon and a beaded, fringed shrug, then an orange satin dress with a long pearl necklace, then floor length crushed velvet, and in another scene, she is one of three women wearing long red vintage dresses and fur stoles with black feathers in a hairpiece. I thank costume designer, Anna-Alisa Belous, for helping me figure out the era.

The sexual tension and passion between Macbeth and his wife is giddy, they would do anything for the love of each other, or is it the love of power? Macbeth is the story of a man who hears a prophecy told by “the weird sisters” that he will be king and sets out to make sure that prophecy comes true, unfortunately, he is also told that his children will not inherit the thrown. Two women (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan and Dana Block) and a man (Gabriel Graetz) play the weird sisters as real sisters, that is, nuns with blousy, white cornettes for hats. The weird sisters almost pull it off. There is never a doubt that they play women, but in the cauldron scene, Graetz pulls his arm out of his sleeve and his bare shoulder and arm are exposed while the sisters/witches become possessed and speak the second prophecy – a man “not born of woman” will kill Macbeth. The bare arm is distracting and reminds me that this “sister” is a man, even though everyone is calling him “she.”

On the other hand, Banquo, played by Sarah Newhouse, appears as a woman, first wearing the army uniform and later a grey leather duster and high red zip-up boots. He is definitely a “she” and the actors and their lines are changed accordingly as Banquo will be the “mother” of kings. During the time of Shakespeare, men played all the parts. It is refreshing to see the reverse and a female Banquo works perfectly as friend, soldier, mother, and ghost. Speaking of mother, the irony of the knife scene where Macduff tells that he is born of cesarean section, is not lost to the audience, and the choreography of this fight scene, by Violence Designer Ted Hewlett is very good.

Richard Snee is an excellent actor. He plays four parts, but as the Porter in the “Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there?” scene, he is the best. He staggers drunkenly and his facial expressions with tongue thrusts trigger many laughs in the madness that is Macbeth.

The lighting orchestrated by Karen Perlow, scenic design by Jenna McFarland-Lord, and props by Ian Thorsell are essential to mystique in this production. The symbolism embodied in Lady Macbeth’s hands is interwoven beautifully as she plays with the shadow of her fingers against the back curtain or takes gauntlets and long-sleeved gloves off and on. The torn, sheer, soot-stained curtain backdrop is lit to cause a banquet table or “stained glass” rosette window to appear and disappear, giving just enough illusion of a dinner party or a church. When “Birnam woods come to Dunsinane” in the second Act, this same backlit space conveys the power and magic of a prophecy fulfilled. It’s an impressive five seconds, worth the wait, but don’t blink!

There is one major drawback in this show. Many of the lengthy conversations between two characters or Macbeth’s soliloquies are acted at floor/audience level in what would be the orchestra pit in a musical performance. This view of actors sitting on the stage, legs hanging into the pit, or even standing below the stage in the pit, is obstructed for the audience sitting further back than row three. There are also minor drawbacks. The weird sisters perform in this same area and their potions and ingredients, all lined up and glowing, are also in this hidden pit – unseeable and unknowable by most of the audience. Since they were dressed at nuns, it would have made more sense to place them behind the backlit curtain with the rosette window, then everyone could have seen them. In addition, some actors rushed their lines, cutting each other off, which I could let go, except that it happened more than once. Perhaps by the end of this show’s run, the Shakespearean language will go more smoothly.

It was an intimate crowd in a school auditorium-sized theater that felt smaller because the back of the house was interestingly curtained off in a semi circle. If you go, keep in mind that at its Sunday matinees, the ASP holds a post-show discussion. And remember, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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