Posted by: strugglesome | October 7, 2010

Foul is Fair: The Wilma Theater’s Macbeth

Strange as it may sound, Shakespeare’s plays are not unlike romantic comedies, or cross-country train travel. Within the first few scenes you can pretty much see exactly where this thing is going, but the destination isn’t the point so much as seeing how the specific production treats the journey itself. Scholars may grunt and groan about the factual inaccuracies and unreasonable plots (does Capulet really seem like an Italian last name to you? Seriously?), but no one debates that these are excellent plays, amazing works of theater. Shakespeare is, its fair to say, a hard playwright to underrate.  And so the challenge of any production of his works, especially his tragedies, is having the production itself match the quality of the text while subtly disguising it’s improbabilities and gaps. It is this challenge that the Wilma Theater has taken on in their production of Macbeth,  the Scottish play, cursed bloodbath and witchy wonderland that captivates audiences and frustrates directors, and while there are times in which this production may fail to measure up, there are also aspects of this piece that go above and beyond.

With her arresting stage pictures and beautifully smooth transitions, Director Blanka Zizka has done something remarkable here, she has created a complete world, a total environment in which the actions and motions of every single actor feel natural, alive, complete and appropriate. Part of this has to be due to the vocal training the cast received from Andrew Wade, a voice and text consultant from the Royal Shakespeare Theater, the results of which is a landscape of beautifully evenly spoken text, heard and understood by audience and actors alike. (As a side note, there is nothing more disheartening than watching a play in which the audience has a better grasp of what’s being said then the players themselves.)

Another part of this is due to the strength and power of the actors themselves. Quite simply, there is no discernible weak link, this is a prodigiously talented cast. Lead by CJ Wilson in the title role (a part he carries off with a firm jaw, a brusque masculinity, and gorgeously harsh and vulnerable depths) with Jacqueline Antaramian as his lady (delicate, powerful, screamingly regal and deliciously ambitious), this couple has more chemistry then a pre-med curriculum, twisting each other about, raging, comforting and plotting. Harold Bloom once said that there are only two couples in Shakespeare who really had the potential for happiness, and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are one of them.  This is certainly the case with these two bloodthirsty lovebirds, and the dissolution of their respective sanities and collective relationship lives and breathes on the Wilma’s stage.

Also especially strong (and it’s hard to point fingers with this group) is Albert Jones as Macduff, playing the role with power and grace (and making us all wonder why Macduff is even IN this play, I mean, he’s the Job of the piece, he loses everything and doesn’t even get the crown? And yet Jones makes it work. Amazing). Luigi Sottile’s Malcom is also excellent, painfully earnest but also strong, and truly well delivered, and Ames Adamson provides us with a brief but welcome comic relief in the Porter-of-hell monologue. Another strong actor is Krista Apple, who does double duty as a weird sister and Lady Macduff, and in just one scene she manages to portray just what life looks like living on the knife’s edge of tension and fear created by Macbeth’s reign.

Played in Mimi Lien’s incredible bi-level industrial-chic set which combines El stop and Palace with stunning ease, this production is a symphony in fine staging. Also stunning is the sound design by Daniel Perelstein, a tense and finely tuned soundscape of heart-beat drumming and eerily haunting echoed hymns. In the first moments of the play, choreographed with the help of everyone’s favorite dance dare-devil (Brian Sanders), we see our weird sisters (Krista Apple, Rachael Joffred and Nako Adodoadji)  in action in a slate gray barely illuminated space. The half-human beings are looting a body in landscape of modern warfare. The first scene looks vaguely reminiscent of Mother Courage and Her Children, and the rest of the act follows in its semi-Brechtian stead, as Duncan and his compatriots wait tensely in a Hitler-style bunker, and Banquo and Macbeth wander through a murky mysterious no-mans-land of prophesy and temptation.

But while the beginning of the first act sets up an environment of war, destruction and societal corrosion, once we get to Macbeth’s house, well, disappointingly enough, we stay there. Once this production goes indoors, it, for the most part, lives indoors, and the sense of the exterior, a crumbling world at war, a Scotland under attack, the pillars of society and mortality at risk, well, it’s just gone. And while we are repeatedly told that Macbeth and his reign is destroying Scotland, well, it really is the case of telling and not showing.  This is not to say that the person to person conflicts (and person versus self conflicts) that dictate the tension of rest of this production are uninteresting or unengaging, but it does mean that in the final scenes of the play in which the world at large once again becomes an invasive force and the source of the action, intruding into the inner life of Macbeth himself, the audience is left a touch surprised, after all, we haven’t really though about it for the last 10 scenes or so. It alters the rhythm of the piece, creating a dip in momentum that even  the deeply exciting ending of this production can’t quite regain. This can be a danger in creating a neutral setting, it’s true that we could be everywhere, and as a result, we aren’t really anywhere.

But, hey, we don’t go to see this play to get a look at world politics and war games, we come to see two crazy kids killing their friends, chatting with witches, and going insane. And speaking of witches, Zizka has made some very interesting choices with her coven, especially when it comes to the “double double toil and trouble” routine. Instead of Macbeth going to find his three Cassandras, they come to him, descending into Macbeth’s castle like furies, destroying the abandoned dinner party (Banquo’s ghost is such a party foul) to feed the tortured king twisted prophesies. The choice to bring the witches indoors, to make them the instigators of Macbeth’s doomed fate weakens the character of Macbeth on some level, it makes him completely the subject of magical interference rather than the author of his own destiny. If Macbeth goes to find the witches, he makes a choice. If they find him, they manipulate his life.  As jarring and  dissonant as I found this decision, it does bring up the age-old debate at the heart of this play, that is, are Macbeth’s actions completely the result of supernatural interference, or are the witches merely a catalyst surprising Macbeth into actions he had always desired and been capable of completing.

When it comes to Shakespeare, a choice made by a particular production or director is not so much bad or good as it is interesting or uninteresting. To create a piece that asks questions and demands something of the audience as they (and the actors) wrestle with the depths of human experience and desire, that is the goal. And even if one thing works or another thing doesn’t, the important thing is what this play provokes us to consider. And this production provokes quite a bit. The audience, like Macbeth, has “supped full with horrors”, and while he dies we are left to sort through the wreckage and take from it what we can. And this particular production leaves us with quite a lot to take.

The Wilma Theater’s Macbeth will run from now until November 7th. You can pick up tickets here.

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