Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Macbeth"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jason Slavick

Macbeth…..Shawn Galloway
Lady Macbeth/Ensemble…..Anne Gottlieb
Macduff/ Murderer #2/Ensemble…..James Barton
Banquo/Lady Macduff/Hecate/Ensemble…..Lisa Anne Porter
Duncan/Murderer #1/Ensemble…..Joe Owens
Malcolm/Ensemble…..Constantine Maroulis
Ross/Seyton/Ensemble…..Elizabeth Wightman
Witch #1…..Laura Napoli
Witch #2…..Elizabeth Hayes
Witch #3…..Erin Bell

Boston Theatre Works' production of MACBETH is my first taste of Shakespeare for the new year and while it is far superior to last year's MACBETH at the Industrial Theatre, any laurels that may come it way will be due to Shawn Galloway and Anne Gottlieb, its Thane and his Lady. They are definitely worth seeing.

To quote from my Industrial review: "Though MACBETH is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, its concentration only makes its dour world all the more vivid: the audience must feel the cold blast of the heath, smell the stench of blood, sense a near-visible evil that sweeps all before it – and breathe relief when light and justice finally pierce the darkness." Add Terror to the list – no other tragedy pumps out so much of it; not only from the night and the supernatural but from Macbeth's murders and his growing paranoia and Lady Macbeth's ruthless ambition and her resulting madness. MACBETH is a mood piece; a tone poem – its malevolent world is unlike anything else in the Shakespeare canon. A director and his/her designers have their work cut out for them.

Ask schoolchildren to describe MACBETH and they'll say, "Thunder. Lightning. Fog. Shrieks. Blood. And WITCHES." No doubt, so will their parents, along with artists and composers of the Romantic era (Fuseli and Verdi, for example). Doing MACBETH as One Dark and Stormy Night does not mean a lack of imagination on a director's/designer's part; far from it – it is called being Faithful to Shakespeare's Vision. But this is Boston Theatre Works, which prides itself on "cutting edge" theatre; or, We Are Faithful to Ourselves.

Judging by J. Michael Griggs' set design, you'd think you're at a Greek tragedy: sections of irregular, bone-white walls suggesting an abandoned villa on a cliff overlooking the Aegean. A large marble-like slab lies center stage – a sacrificial altar? Three maidens – kohl-eyed and bare-legged – nestle in nooks, solemnly tapping out an endless rhythm on drums. Are they priestesses? Bacchantes? The Chorus for Medea, Antigone or another doomed heroine? As the houselights dim and the maidens come forth to giggle, writhe and chant, you realize these are the Witches, and the villa overlooking the Aegean is medieval Scotland out on the moors minus the dark, the thunder, the lightning – and the Terror. (I'll say one thing for the Industrial Theatre production – at least they got the setting right, and their Witches were more appropriately clad.)

I have scribbled twice before that there are some Shakespearean characters whose interpretation can not only set the tone of a production but can also pinpoint its strengths or weaknesses: Lear's Fool. Ariel and Caliban. And Macbeth's Witches. In the past year, I have been fortunate to see Gwen Larsen's Fool (Ubiquity Stage) and David Blais' Ariel and Saheem Ali's Caliban (Northeastern University) – all three, close to being definitive because they were played for what they were and not as what their directors THOUGHT they were. I'm not saying that the Witches have to hobble in with pointed hats and broomsticks; still, they DO start the show, and to see them as three comely young women in babydolls rang a warning bell for me – which proved to be a false alarm. These Witches aside, this MACBETH turns out to be surprisingly conventional – not "cutting edge" at all. Whether that be relief or disappointment, I leave it to you.

There's the age-old questions: be these Witches from hell or be they pagans? Are they real or projections of Macbeth's darkest thoughts? Do they lead Macbeth to his doom with their prophecies, or do they parrot what he has hummed to himself? Director Jason Slavick goes for the supernatural: his Witches are onstage throughout the performance, and – with a nod to Industrial's production? – take on all the bit parts (servants; messengers; even the urinating Porter) to lead or push the others to disaster (can you imagine the Ghost of Hamlet's father doing the same thing?). I suppose the gimmick could work for some people (it doesn't for me); still, it does rob the Witches of their Otherness by having them always on display, and their continued presence reduces Macbeth & Company to puppets. (Those bit parts should not be so easily dismissed: they greatly add to the everyday life of the piece, as well as reflecting that all is not well in Cawdor). And you must admit it's hard to take a Third Murderer seriously when she's out on those Greek-Scottish moors, dressed for beddy-bye….

At play's end, with Macbeth dead and Malcolm taking up the crown, the Witches – beating their drums – slowly encircle the new King, who stiffens and turns to the audience, a sudden Look in his eyes…. Sorry, folks; I don't buy it – and neither would an Elizabethan audience. They would have demanded that Good triumph over Evil – especially since there was still a strong fear of witchcraft in Shakespeare's time. Ironically, one of the Witches does a GOOD deed, coming to warn Lady Macduff that danger is on the way.

Aside from Mr. Slavick's truly Weird Sisters, the only departure for BTW's MACBETH is his casting of women in some of the male roles. I've no objection to this growing trend, provided, of course, that the actresses are good at it. These past few years I've applauded Paula Plum's Trinculo (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company), the Gonzolo of Mercedes M. Molina (Northeastern University) and Robyn LeVine (Boston University), Chinasa Ogbuagu's Stephano (Boston University) – all from THE TEMPEST – and, back in '98, Judith Austin as a fascinating, spidery Richard III in WOMEN WITH WILL: AN EVENING WITH SHAKESPEARE'S STRONG-WILLED WOMEN (Ms. Austin then turned full circle and gave us a womanly, grief-stricken Constance from KING JOHN – bravo!). These actresses did not convince me they were men – but they did convince me they were male-like in their gestures and inflections. (You could say these sopranos learned how to sing baritone.) Sadly, BTW's Lisa Anne Porter (Banquo) and Elizabeth Wightman (Ross) stomp and bellow throughout the evening, turning in dull caricatures of men (a man hooting and mincing as Lady Macbeth would be equally off the mark). I was hoping Ms. Porter, like Ms. Austin, would turn full circle when playing the gentle Lady Macduff, but she seems to have only one tone: bronze. Mr. Slavick has removed Young Macduff from this scene, thus depriving Ms. Porter of a tender moment – but then, a Witch would have leapt into her lap, so it's just as well he's gone. On the other hand, Mr. Slavick has retained the often-cut Hecate turns, which Ms. Porter amusingly intones along the lines of "…and your little dog, too!"

James Barton, so moving in BTW's LARAMIE PROJECT, also bellows and stomps as Macduff, but he has the vocal flexibility and lung power to back him up. His is not a Shakespearean voice – more of a Vigilante Dad's, really – and it issues forth from behind the whitest set of choppers I've ever seen (I'm reminded of that playgoer's comment upon seeing Edmund Kean's Othello: "I saw those eyes all night…")

In a refreshing bit of casting against type, Joe Owens is a tough, badger-like Duncan (a role usually played as Father Christmas), and he makes you wonder how HE gained the throne – though it's hard to imagine golden blood flowing from Mr. Owens' hide. Constantine Maroulis is the show's happy surprise – his callow Malcolm subtly grows and impresses, and when his voice – light, youthful, and truly Shakespearean – is paired with Mr. Barton's virile sound, I closed my eyes to simply listen to the lovely music of their duet; that is, until all went discordant, and I opened my eyes to behold Macduff throttling him (a "cutting edge" moment). Though the omission of Young Macduff is regrettable, I didn't miss Malcolm's now-absent brother Donalbain, which gives Malcolm a nice little aside to the audience as he flees for his life.

MACBETH is the shortest of the Bard's tragedies – and Mr. Slavick has made it seem even shorter with his rapid pacing (you're in at 8:00 and out at 10:30 – including intermission), which is a pity, for Mr. Slavick has a Lord and Lady Macbeth who, though excellent here, could be even more so should he slacken his reins, add half an hour to the production and set free the haunting/haunted poetry of his two leads. (Right now we're watching the quickly turning pages of a comic book – with the Witches as ads for Victoria's Secret.)

Macbeth is a tricky role to play; Shakespeare presents him at the very moment of the Witches' prophecies – we never see the everyday, "normal" fellow (which only adds to his mystery and our fascination). Even his deepest asides to the audience are commentary on the present and the future – not a word about his past. And what side of Macbeth should dominate – the poet (feeling) or the warrior (action)? Shawn Galloway's warm, sensitive demeanor defines the poet, blessed with a voice that can go from roar to whisper, and he shapes and sculpts his speeches to pleasing effect. (His Macbeth even threatens to be loveable.) However, Mr. Galloway is at odds with his director, who favors the man of action – thus he can only send out flashes of Macbeth's torment while on the run, with Mr. Slavick snapping at his heels. (Mr. Slavick does Mr. Galloway a disservice in the Dagger Speech by upstaging him with a Witch holding out a knife like a carrot on a stick. Let Mr. Galloway do his job, I say – alone!)

A few directors may groan, but some exposure to opera – its conventions and its structure, at least – can only help them in understanding how a Shakespearean script is constructed and how to make it sing. Look at Act I, Scene iii of MACBETH in musical terms:

1. Opening Chorus: The Witches
2. Recitative: Macbeth and Banquo
3. Ensemble: Macbeth, Banquo, The Witches
4. Recitative: Macbeth and Banquo
5. Ensemble: Macbeth, Banquo and Ross
6. ARIA: Macbeth – "Two truths are told"

Nos. 1-5 lead up to Macbeth's "Two truths are told" – with the Witches now vanished and Banquo and Ross conveniently upstage – freeing the actor to come downstage center to "sing" his first aria – and it mustn't be rushed. If a director looks at a Shakespeare script in this fashion, he/she can determine where the arias are (allowing them to thicken and grow), what are the important duets and ensembles and what is recitative or filler (not every line of Shakespeare's is spun gold). Mr. Slavick shows little this musical sense for the present (unless it's a fondness for Rossini), but he does allow Mr. Galloway some breathing space for his final aria – the weary "Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow", where Macbeth stops to reflect on the hand that Fate has dealt him.

Though Anne Gottlieb first appears as a wounded soldier, she soon comes back as Lady Macbeth, and what a handsome woman she is! (She, too, was wonderful in THE LARAMIE PROJECT.) With raven hair tumbling past her shoulders, a passion-colored dress of classical design, and backed by those white, timeless walls, Ms. Gottlieb's Lady is a figure out of opera (Maria Callas, two doors down), if not Euripides, and when she started her Letter Scene, I would not have been surprised had she sung it in a rich, warm mezzo. Ms. Gottlieb's natural warmth proves her greatest asset – not only does this Lady rule her Lord with her physical charms as much as with her intellect (they smooch a bit), it would make any Duncan willingly walk into her web. And Ms. Gottlieb suggests her Lady's collapse by slowly dimming her warmth until she is cold ashes on the hearth – she is already dead by her Sleepwalking Scene. Unfortunately, Mr. Slavick rushes Ms. Gottlieb, too – her incantation to the powers of evil (another aria) is too fast a transformation, and she quickly enters and exits with her candle in the Sleepwalking Scene, when that scene's music demands that she slowly drift in and slowly, slowly drift out – more ghost than woman.

When Mr. Galloway and Ms. Gottlieb come together, they show how great this MACBETH could have been – and still could be. Luckily, their first scene – following the Letter Scene – is mostly recitative and benefits from Mr. Slavick's briskness. Though their duets before and after the Dagger Scene are also rushed, Mr. Galloway and Ms. Gottlieb blend so well – his large, searching eyes complimenting her fixed, burning ones – and it is fascinating to watch his Macbeth grow more monstrous as her Lady dwindles down to extinction. May these two actors be reunited in these roles, say, ten years from now, and directed by Mr. Slavick once he has gotten some opera under his belt. What riches they might give us then!

The Witches' attire aside, Molly Trainer has designed simple but evocative period costumes, and the blood on the hands of Macbeth and his Lady looks all too real – pale, thin and sticky (unlike the lobby photo which shows Mr. Galloway with his hands drenched in what seems to be red paint). The Witches and Banquo's Ghost nicely appear and vanish with a PING!, but the ensemble makes most of its entrances and exits clumping through the audience, and it does strain creditability when warriors charge up the aisle with a long ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAR! only to fall silent once they step out into the hallway. And until enough local actors are trained for stage combat, I say once again that all fights scenes should be either performed with sticks or mimed for the correct movements and thrusts, rather than watching actors with swords trying not to hurt each other. The final Macbeth-Banquo scene especially needs to be toned down, for it ends with poor Mr. Galloway, supposedly dead on the ground, working his lungs like bellows (and still panting at curtain call).

I was happy to read that Ms. Gottlieb is a BTW Company Member, and I look forward to seeing her in future productions – that is, if I'm allowed back inside….

"Macbeth" (22 February - 13 March)
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont Street. BOSTON MA
1 (617)728-4321

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide