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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Macbeth’

MCC SHAKESPEARE 6

It isn’t particularly graceful. There’s no upper-crust, commune-with-the-classics feel. This isn’t the kind of show where you feel like throwing roses on the stage afterward.

But Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s brutish and drastically truncated adaptation of “Macbeth” — which dumps much of the politics and history of the famed play, along with the spectacle of “double, double, toil and trouble” — packs quite a visceral punch. It makes me think of a short, ugly fireplug of a boxer: the kind of scrappy underdog who isn’t elegant in the ring but manages to deliver some powerful and unexpected blows.

The production plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 12 (no show on July 4) at the Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage in Woodward Park.

There are amazing moments in this “Macbeth,” with some scenes are so vivid and visually charged that they have a cinematic quality. One comes late in the show when Macbeth (played with a grim, sometimes overwrought ferocity by Greg Taber, who also adapted and directed) confronts Donalbain (a compelling Broderic Beard), one of the sons of the murdered King Duncan.

The entire encounter is wordless, and in a creepy twist, Macbeth doesn’t actually fight. Donalbain works himself into a frenzy, thrusting and sparring at the man who killed his father, but Macbeth shrugs off every blow as if he’s been endowed with some sort of supernatural armor. It’s like watching some kind of martial art form in which the practitioner fends off an aggressor through non-violent means. And yet the confrontation remains exceedingly violent, with Macbeth periodically bursting forth with a wrenching brutality. (Dane Oliver’s fight choreography is first-rate.) The scene has an ominously surreal, ballet-style quality to it.

If you’re a Shakespeare purist, you might be reaching for your scripts right about now, trying to find the part in the play in which Donalbain fights Macbeth. You won’t. Shakespeare packed him off to Ireland, never to be heard from again. But Taber injects him back into his version, making him an integral part of the story as a way to show Macbeth’s descent into madness.

Taber takes lots of other liberties with the script — combining some characters and eliminating others, rearranging scenes, and cutting lots of text. For example, we learn of the death of Lady Macbeth (played with a brittle, bracing verve by Kate McKnight) before we see the “out, damned spot” scene in a flashback. Taber even chops up his character’s famed soliloquy by giving the opening lines in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech to the Three Witches (Megan DeWitt, Donna Halliburton and Jessica Reedy).

By paring down “Macbeth’s” storylines, Taber says he’s able to focus on what he considers to be the overriding arc of the play: that good people can by coopted by extraordinary evil.

The most compelling result of Taber’s drastic adaptation — he calls it a “distillation” — is the snapshot that emerges of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. There’s no nobility there. They seem base and common, almost trashy, committed to violence but without the strength to be able to capitalize upon and move beyond the consequences of that violence. I think that Taber has a fascinating take on Macbeth, imbuing him with a macho swagger, though at times his performance gets too big and grandiloquent.

In terms of acting, Jay Parks is a standout as Banquo, giving us a meaty, interesting take on the character. (I also really like how the Banquo’s Ghost scene is staged — another visual high point in the production.) There are ups and downs in terms of acting throughout the ensemble, and some clunky blocking — I wish the nearly omnipresent Witches could have been more fluidly staged — but overall, the pacing of the show is brisk and accomplished.

I’ve seen “Macbeth” before, quite a few times, so perhaps I’m more disposed to tinkering. The last production I saw, last year on Broadway, featured Alan Cumming as a patient in an insane asylum who basically acted out the entire show by himself, playing all the characters. So this Woodward Shakespeare production to me simply carries that avant-garde tradition forward.

The question remains: How much can you chop up “Macbeth” and still have it be “Macbeth”? Nearly all contemporary productions of Shakespeare are cut, of course, many of them drastically so. But how many liberties can a director take? I think it’s safe to say that Taber has skirted close to that line, if not actually crossed it. More power to him.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Macbeth’"

Mohammad Shehata says:

A better question would be “Did whatever plot that was decided upon carry over into honest performances by the actors?” I would say, no. Instead of actually communicating the play to us, Taber gives us a lecture on what it means to him. Who cares. It’s insulting to any person to tell them exactly what the meaning is behind a play. It is not the actor’s or director’s or anyone’s job to do so. Now, I’m not saying I particularly “disagree” with this “interpretation,” I am simply saying that it does not belong on the stage. The moment it rears its ugly head, the integrity of the play is compromised—because it now becomes something that is explained to me, rather than a story I can enjoy through the life given to it by the spontaneity and honesty of the actors. Taber’s direction is not a “distillation,” it is a saturation with obnoxious academic persona that is then coated with emotional checkpoints fixed to serve this persona and give the illusion of being “visceral” when it is actually stale and lifeless. Taber does not “highlight” a specific theme of the play (who’s to say there is one, besides the academics who use up a criminal amount of paper to vainly intellectualize a piece of art and/or entertainment?), he directly embellishes the plot he more or less adapted with pompous nonsense. I don’t mean to criticize his cuts or modifications. They could work well without his embellishments of the plot he decided to form. I am not saying that the “interpretation” is wrong—I am saying it is unnecessary and thus harmful to the artistic endeavor. It does not belong on the stage. Who’s to say that audience members, when presented with the play honestly and simply, will not walk away with some interpretation of their own? Maybe one will say, “Poor Macbeth, he was tempted by evil,” perhaps another will think, “That Macbeth, he was evil from the start.” And these two people could very well have seen the same performance on the same night, and thus, through the simplicity of the acting and directing, we just might be treated to the full complexity and mystery of human nature, rather than to a flat, 2-dimensional classroom session on what one person’s idea of it is. Again, who cares? Besides, any insights into human nature an audience may gain from a play are trivial byproducts of their actual enjoyment of said play. And an audience cannot enjoy something that is dried up with interpretation. I certainly do not. When you “Highlight” a “theme” of a play, you rob it of its fullness—its life. Just do the damn play. This production hides behind an academic model, thus robbing the performances of any real strength. The line reassignments are a wimpy move. Have the courage to actually say the lines. An actor bravely speaking their lines to an audience without the pretense of “interpretation” is far more compelling than any director’s decision on what a line means or who should say it. Besides, on a practical level, the line reassignments take away from any connection we could have had with Macbeth’s fears and anguish. That being said, the play did have its moments—you give good homage to the Macbeth, Donalbain fight scene. Taber’s stillness, honesty, and, the magic word—simplicity, released a vision of Macbeth that was almost heroic. That moment’s lack of embellishment gave it peace. This peace was lacking in most of the scenes. The directorial approach to most of the scenes was, in one word, confused. The blocking was uneven. Cue pickups were replaced by bogus thoughtfulness, and I even found myself unsure of what was happening in certain scenes. The result-oriented nature of the direction robbed us of any real tension and only created awkwardness when an actor failed to meet the emotional demands of each fixed checkpoint; Case in point, when Donalbain screams after seeing his dead father, the forced tension between Macbeth and Banquo when Macbeth spars with Banquo’s son, and the countless moments were actors expressed the need to tell us how they’re feeling rather than actually doing what the scene demands of them. Despite my criticisms, I noticed some real talent in these actors. Tabor is an excellent leading man in many scenes. You’ll notice that the best acting came out in the scenes that were the least embellished (like the Macbeth Donalbain scene) Taber betrays himself when he lacks the courage to do anything that doesn’t suit his pretentious model. The music was, however, good. I’m all for putting music in scenes where the writing may not be so interesting. This would have been a better production if everything was just simpler. I want to give Greg Taber and the Woodward Shakespeare Festival the highest form of respect by being absolutely direct about this production. Macbeth is a very difficult play. It cannot be solved by an interpretation. It can only be explored and communicated honestly, and the cast should not try to cover up any ambiguities this exploration might entail by falling back to the easy-go formula of an interpretation, but rather they must bravely embrace those ambiguities as a beautiful part of the play. I know that WSF is capable of this. David Mamet said, and I’m paraphrasing, that Tragedy is the most difficult form to write because it entails that the protagonist struggles to his or her goal only to achieve failure, not because of a flaw in society (which they thought they were fighting) but because of a flaw in themselves, that in hindsight can be seen as an inevitable cause of their downfall. It is clear that Taber’s interpretation turns tragedy into drama (because the protagonist is now exclusively battling forces outside themselves–Taber’s explicitly pronounced evil spirits on stage), making this Macbeth entirely separate from the original intents of the author, but that’s not even what matters—the drama wouldn’t be a lesser form if only the play wasn’t forced into actual melodrama because the actors are forced to ham up their emotions in order to serve an interpretation that does little justice to the true complexity and mystery of human nature. Sure, good people can be corrupted, but the most compelling drama suggests that the fate of a protagonist ultimately rests in their hands. Because we, as people, like to think that we are masters of our fate. It is in the theater where we find ourselves compelled by the desire to play God, and it is in the moments where we fall flat on our face in doing so that we discover what it truly is to be Human.

Mohammad Shehata says:

It’s not for any actor to decide if Macbeth is inherently good or inherently evil. How many of us humans are actually secure in our sense of virtue? We’ve all questioned whether or not we are good or evil. What can make Macbeth, or the actor playing him, so sure of himself? Nothing can. We do our best to maintain order and to win control—that is essentially Macbeth’s goal. When he falls flat on his face we see that he is human.

jamie says:

I wasn’t planning on seeing Macbeth until I read Mohammad’s essay on the production. While I found the show pretentious, and silly and did not move me in the least, I have to remind Mohammed that it is art. And a huge part of art is the artist’s interpretation of what s/he sees, reads, experiences, etc. So while some people may not like Greg Taber’s production, it is his production to do with as he pleases. It must have pleased the WSF’s board or they wouldn’t have allowed it. The fact that it caused you to write so much about it argues to the point that it effected you strongly. And that is something else art is supposed to do.

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