Austin Shakespeare's staging is strong but at times is lost in its own sound and fury
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Sept. 19, 2008
Rollins Studio Theatre, through Sept. 21
Running time: 2 hr, 45 min
Returning from intermission, the effect of the new king's reign looms heavily in front of its audience. Hooded, mutilated bodies hang from the rafters; the stage feels like a slaughterhouse. In Austin Shakespeare's new production of Macbeth, where even Lady M carries a knife at all times, The Scottish Play is steeped in blood too deep from the get-go.
Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella has subtitled her production "A Global Perspective." What does that mean precisely? Well, she doesn't want you to associate this 17th century play about an 11th century lord with ruffles or feudalism. Think power. Think evil. Think tyranny. Think, as the program suggests, Pol Pot, Pinochet, and Mao Zedong.
She's fitted The Scottish Play for a modern context and design, replete with military fatigues, bamboo harkening to Asian battlegrounds, cell phones, pharmaceuticals, linen suits, assorted bling, and electric guitar in the sound design. Thirty-foot-high plastic sheeting flanks the stage to convey the feeling of a meat locker. This ain't your ancestors' Macbeth, that's for sure.
When this modernization is applied to the drama itself, however, the results are mixed. Lady Macbeth popping pills to keep herself on point or Macbeth proffering a joint to woo a couple of rogues into slaying Banquo are very slick. But other anachronisms lag under their construction, such as Lady M texting a lengthy speech to her betrothed, and some moments seem forced, such as an homage to Psycho's shower scene that is cringe-worthy for all the wrong reasons. Similarly, Michael McKelvey's original score doesn't quite snap into place due to its canned output and the loss of actors' lines to the sound.
Any Macbeth will only go as far as its titular lord can take it, and, thankfully, Marc Pouhé is as captivating as ever in the role. It's hard to shake his Macbeth, who waxes existential against his problems and is broken only by the most calamitous of events. And leading up to Duncan's murder, he and Sharron Bower's Lady M form a dynamic duo charged by sex, drugs, and repartee.
Macbeth really is a power play, a surge of intense drama with riveting exchanges, murders, the supernatural, sword fights, etc., and when this production locks into the action, it really sings. The banquet scene, when Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost, pulses with energy. The witches, with their off-kilter movement and wild costumes, are entrancing (particularly when joined by Austin Lyric Opera's Cindy Sadler as Hecate). And toward the end, the scenes come hard and fast, the well-choreographed fights pop, and the drama takes over. That tempo, that conflict, really makes Macbeth hum, and you wish it kept up throughout. Despite this being Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, the staging runs two hours and 45 minutes, with a lot of that time slotted into long pauses where the verse could have been followed more strictly.
There are strong moments throughout Austin Shakespeare's production – the banquet scene, Malcolm's testing of Macduff, the back and forth between Lord and Lady M – but sometimes the show gets lost in its own sound and fury, and, well, we all know what that signifies.