Monday, January 12, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: Macbeth

A review of Barbara Gaines' production of Shakespeare's tragedy at Chicago Shakespeare.


Shakespeare's Macbeth has a reputation as a cursed play. In part, this is based a history of disasters or near-disasters during performances--actors menaced or even killed by falling scenery, theatres catching fire, and more. Even more accursed, however, is the frequency with which productions end up as disasters. This is because Macbeth is an insanely difficult play to do well. It only has one story, without subplots, but it tells the story on three different levels: the political, for the murder of Duncan and subsequent rise to power, the personal, for the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the supernatural, for the scenes with the witches. Balancing those factors, and keeping a play that's familiar for a huge portion of the audience interesting, is no easy feat. 

Barbara Gaines' production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is far from a disaster--indeed it is intermittently riveting. But there are only a handful of scenes that are really gripping, and the rest of the play goes along, never boring and rarely falling into the territory of the truly silly but never feeling truly urgent or exciting.

Gaines has set the production in our era, in a city somewhat reminiscent of Chicago. Macbeth (Ben Carlson) is in combat fatigues and later business suits, Lady Macbeth (Karen Aldridge) in either flowing dresses or nothing at all. The witches in this interpretation (Kate Buddeke, Angela Ingersoll, and a hilariously bizarre Mike Nussbaum) are representatives of the media--showing Macbeth what he wants to see, whatever the consequences. Other contemporary touches range from the clever (the song "Witchcraft" played under the party where Duncan visits the castle) to the perplexing (the strip club).

The performances are a mixed bag. Carlson is an exceptional Canadian actor--I saw him as Jack in Man And Superman at the Shaw Festival, keeping the audience utterly engaged for well over three hours of challenging theatre, and he won a Jeff for his performance as Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare two seasons back. Here he is a marvel at speaking the verse--clear, accessible, and crystalline. Unfortunately, he never quite takes us into the depths of Macbeth's soul. He's always interesting to watch, but never truly horrifying. Alrdridge, generally wonderful, was surprisingly tentative for the first part of the performance. She was heartbreaking in the sleepwalking scene, but I wish she had brought that level of vibrancy and commitment to the production as a whole.

What makes the production sad instead of merely disappointing is the fact that there are genuinely exceptional moments onstage. I won't soon forget the banquet scene, where Macbeth becomes steadily more and more unhinged while confronted with Banquo's murder--with invaluable assistance from projections designer Mike Tutaj and makeup desiger Melissa Veal. But a few exceptional scenes can't make up for a production that overall lacks urgency, failing to make this terrifying story consistently gripping. It is far from a catastrophe, but also far from exciting.

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