Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 27, 2000
A Macbeth: Foul Is Fair
Through November 12
Running Time: 1 hr, 25 min
The hour is come again for Shakespeare's murderous Scots to set about their deadly work, to unsheathe their ambition and cruelly spill the blood of kings, warriors, and other hapless victims across the stage. This time, though, they will do so with no high castle walls surrounding them, no ornate banquet halls or broad battlefields, no hordes of soldiers marching on them from Birnam Wood. This time, they will wreak their bloody havoc on a great, dark platform, steeply raked and pointed like an arrow, a large ring of stone set into its night-black timber and partly jutting from it to enclose a pointed pit at the platform's base. From on high, seven shafts of spectral light cleave the darkness and fall on seven squat blocks of wood that line the platform's back edges. From each block rises the blade and hilt of a sword, like Excalibur from the stone or a cross from the ground of Golgotha. Only nine players step forward to spin the dark tale here, and they take their places on the platform as if participating in a ceremony, with three of their number ministering to the rest with incantation and cup. This is a Macbeth stripped of its spectacle and theatrical extravagance, one thrust into a roiling cauldron and boiled down, clarified, into its dramatic essence: a ritual of human depravity and evil, a Black Mass.
Director Guy Chandler Roberts has returned to the minimalist version of the Scottish Play that proved so successful at the FronteraFest Long Fringe and with this new State Theater Company staging makes clear that his earlier -- forgive the pun -- stab at the familiar drama was no conceptual novelty. The paring of text and characters makes this lean, swiftly moving tragedy race even faster, intensifying our focus on the Macbeths, on their moral decay and the sickening speed with which we humans can surrender to evil and spiral into self-destruction. And the ceremonial spin both adds to the show's sinister supernatural air and neatly acknowledges our familiarity with its grim story and our almost obsessive need to see it unfold again and again. Concerns that the show's transfer from the intimate environs of The Hideout to the expansive auditorium of the State would sacrifice the intimate power of the first staging have been dispelled; Roberts and his tight, emotive cast expand to fill the space, and the enhanced production elements -- Christopher McCollum's stark and striking elemental set, Buffy Manners' baroque black battle armor and sleek, simple robes, Tony Tucci's rich, moody lighting, and the Gunn Brothers' powerfully unsettling sound design, with its medieval music, distorted voices, and animal howls -- raise the level of impact to new heights. It's as if we're seeing this infernal cult and its ritual of blood in some ruined cathedral out of time.
Yet for a production that's so spare, Roberts' adaptation of the Scottish Play exudes a startling sensuality. Steve Shearer's Macbeth enters with blood covering his arms, and under Tucci's lights, it has a slick crimson sheen. Judson Jones' Macduff responds to battle with a body-racking retch. Babs George's Lady Macbeth contemplates the advance in her and her husband's station with a visible hunger, as if anticipating a great feast. When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth commit to their crime, George and Shearer consummate the act with a fiercely passionate kiss. It's all so visceral, filling our senses and communicating the heady, primal nature of what the Macbeths are feeling. That may be where A Macbeth's greatest achievement lies: It lets us feel the appeal in its protagonists' grim deeds, the allure of evil. That aspect takes us further to the dark side, drawing us closer to an understanding of their actions, making us complicit in them.
Roberts does not stint on the horrors that give this oft-told tale its punch. The glistening blood, the gore-smeared face of Paul Norton's Banquo as he haunts Macbeth at dinner, the panicked eyes of George and Shearer as they sense control slipping from their bloody grasp, the wailing despair of Jones as his Macduff absorbs the news of his family's slaughter, the twisted glee on the faces of Andrea Osborn, David Stahl, and Patricia Pearcy as their three witches manipulate the tale, all hit us in the pit of the stomach. But Roberts leads us to these nightmare moments along a most attractive path, one of sumptuous visuals and strong performances throughout (add to the above Everett Skaggs as a literally and poignantly blind Duncan and John Vincent Hoff as a steely cool Malcolm). In every Macbeth, fair is foul; in A Macbeth, foul has rarely been so fair.