Austin Shakespeare's Macbeth

This military-themed staging of the tragedy gets lost in a haze of design and technical issues

Sleep no more: Marc Pouhé as Macbeth
Sleep no more: Marc Pouhé as Macbeth

In her program note for Macbeth, Austin Shakespeare Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella talks about the Bard's fondness for employing antitheses. The title character is full of good and evil; though evil wins, the victory is not without its repercussions on Macbeth's psyche. Ciccolella also talks about anachronism, and with the show's dramaturg, Dr. Kelly Carolyn Gordon, making a case for Macbeth suffering from PTSD, the use of a military theme here seems natural. However, what seems compelling on paper doesn't always translate well to the stage. The result is a mixed bag of stunning performances and frustrating execution – antithesis, indeed.

The problems begin on the technical end. Microphone gremlins have plagued Zilker Hillside shows for as long as I can remember, with mics repeatedly cutting out and forcing actors to try to compensate vocally for the loss of volume. On the night I saw Macbeth, I estimate they caused the audience to lose a good 5% of the dialogue. The longevity of this problem warrants a mention – it's a huge issue, disconnecting the audience from the dramatic experience. One hopes that Austin Shakespeare, as our city's producer of free "Shakespeare in the Park," can soon address this issue once and for all, for the sake of both its hillside patrons and its performers who must struggle through these audio snafus.

Still, Marc Pouhé proved he can overcome technical challenges (a handheld mic was necessary for a bit toward the start) and turn in a great performance as Macbeth. He is dominant and sincere as the violent, troubled Scot, despite a heaviness of "classical-acting vibrato" in some of his deeper speeches. Helen Merino's magnificent turn as Lady Macbeth is no surprise from an actor who has proven she can master challenging characters as easily as breathing. As the Wyrd Sisters, Hannah Rose Barfoot, Crystal Bird Caviel, and Jessica Hughes rise above some curious staging and costuming choices to offer compelling character work. Alison Stebbins as Hecate and Ross brings a nice energy to the text, and Cameron McKnight stakes powerful claim to the stage as Malcolm.

The production's design elements are where its greater problems lie. While Patrick Anthony's scenic design creates a deep, simple, and elegant playing space, funneling the eye toward a backdrop of wispy smoke, its openness isn't well utilized; several areas are dead or underused, and more than a few actors struggle to fill the stage with power and presence. Ciccolella's placement of some key scenes – namely the witches' "toil and trouble" moment – in "power areas" of a traditional set are partially obscured by the venue's frontal lighting rig. The lighting itself, though – also by Anthony – is impressive: moody, elemental, and crisp, especially given the notorious difficulty of lighting the Zilker stage.

Costumer Benjamin Taylor Ridgeway cobbles together a generic military feel, varying in branch and era from post-WWII through modern attire. One character wears Korean War-era olive drab with a modern Army beret and another current digital camo, with many bases covered in between. Macbeth is Army (sometimes Airborne), MacDuff appears to be Navy, and Malcolm looks to be Air Force. There is little cohesion to the design or sense of who is wearing what uniform, from when, and why, but the impression it leaves is that the play's opposing forces are branches of our military fighting one another. Is this Ridgeway's idea, or is he adhering to his director's artistic vision? Ciccolella's program note suggests that she's going for a broad-strokes feel with no particular historical era, yet the lion's share of the sound design by Jacob Lutz is Vietnam-era "protest rock" (aside from one confusing inclusion of the Beastie Boys), and the witches' costumes seem to go from goth-hippie to full-on flower child.

Ultimately, the whole military affair feels unfortunately inorganic, like a cover not properly woven into the thematic fabric of the play. A little more investment in the exploration of the idea might have yielded richer results, but despite winning some battles in performance, the production's war feels lost in a quagmire.


Macbeth

Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Stage, 2206 William Barton Dr.
www.austinshakespeare.org
Through May 29
Running time: 2 hr., 40 min.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Shakespeare, Ann Ciccolella, Marc Pouhé, Helen Merino, Cameron McKnight, Alison Stebbins, Hannah Rose Barfoot, Crystal Bird Caviel, Jessica Hughes, Patrick Anthony, Benjamin Taylor Ridgway, Jacob Lutz, Kelly Carolyn Gordon

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