note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Attending back-to-back performances of two different plays can provide illuminating contrasts; in this case, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s ballyhooed production of MACBETH, in collaboration with the Wang Center and boasting a “name” actor, is outshone by the Vokes Theatre’s modest but delightful production of THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE. “…and a little theatre shall lead them.”
First Witch … Georgia Hatzis
Second Witch … Mara Sidmore
Third Witch … Christina Bynoe
Duncan, King of Scotland … Baron Kelly
Malcolm, a son of Duncan … Dan Domingues
A Sergeant … John Porell
Lennox, a nobleman of Scotland … Ted Hewlett
Ross, a nobleman of Scotland … Bill Mootos
Macbeth, a general of the King’s army … Jay O. Sanders
Banquo, a general of the King’s army … Benjamin Evett
Angus, a nobleman of Scotland … Jeff Gill
Lady Macbeth, wife of Macbeth … Jennie Israel
Macbeth’s Servant … Adam Soule
Fleance, son of Banquo … James Kelly
A Porter … Christopher Hagberg
Macduff, a nobleman of Scotland … Robert Walsh
Donalbain, a son of Duncan … Pablo Espinosa
An Old Man … Jeff Gill
First Murderer … Owiso Odera
Second Murderer … Douglass Bowen-Flynn
Third Murderer … Lewis Wheeler
Lady Macduff, wife of Macduff … Julie Jirousek
Boy, son of Macduff … Oliver Poole
Messenger … Walter M. Belenky
A Doctor … Baron Kelly
A Gentlewoman … Julie Jirousek
Menteith, a nobleman of Scotland … Douglass Bowen-Flynn
Caithness, a nobleman of Scotland … Owiso Odera
Seyton, an officer attending on Macbeth … Lewis Wheeler
Sewad, Earl of Northumberland, general of the English forces … John Porell
Young Siward, son of Siward … Walter M. Belenky
A Priest … Christopher Hagberg
Servants … Chris L. Butterfield; Elana Wright; Dan Minkle;
Soldiers … Dan Kelly; Dan Minkle; Alex Simoes; Ruibo Qian; Sean North; Michael Deminico
As Artistic Director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Steve Maler is to be applauded for his Herculean efforts in bringing free shows to Boston; Mr. Maler, however, like many of today’s Shakespearean directors, riddles his productions with gimmicks (nowadays, based on current events) and depends upon actors who can still speak the speech when those gimmicks start to yellow and curl; many a performer has steered Mr. Maler’s leaky vessels to safe havens and many an unsuspecting audience thinks what Mr. Maler offers is what Shakespeare is all about --- and it isn’t. I felt neither pity nor fear at his current offering, MACBETH, nor do I take pleasure in administering these annual rebukes; you can thrash a stubborn child to the point where it does no good to either party. To tweak Coriolanus’ line, “There is a MACBETH elsewhere.”
Mr. Maler sets his production in contemporary Central/South America --- despite references to Scotland throughout and ending in three lusty cheers for that country --- where three native women (i.e., the witches, with mantillas) place a curse on the conquering Macbeth (is he an Ugly American-type of general, or is the country at civil war?). When the trio isn’t pushing their wooden podiums about, they linger upstage in sinister repose or smear red paint upon the back panels to foreshadow a murder (the witches always lose their effectiveness by being kept ever in view --- unfortunately, this seems to be a growing trend). By continuing to mix together not only past and present eras but contrasting cultures as well, Mr. Maler ends up with yet another CSC mishmash: despite her manicured New Look, Lady Macbeth still calls upon the pagan gods of darkness (talk about going native!) and enters the Banquet Scene dressed as Evita about to sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”; the Spanish Scotsmen fight with both swords and pistols (hand to hand combat, in this day and age?); the noble Banquo Gets His with a bullet to the brain --- truly a cheap shot; no ghosts of the future emerge from the double-bubble stewpot but, instead, are channeled through the witches themselves (no glimpses of Banquo’s heirs, either); Spanish accordion music zips in and out to set the mood which evaporates as soon as the cast speaks in accent-free English; and so on. As with his HENRY V of yester-summer, should Mr. Maler strip this MACBETH of its tricks and trappings he would have a perfectly respectable evening of Reader’s Theatre.
“Reader’s Theatre” is key to Jay O. Sanders’ portrayal of the haunted, murderous Thane: his is a rich, purring voice worthy, no doubt, of the many audio books he has recorded, but there his voice remains --- in Reader’s Theatre; his final aria, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” rests as lightly on the surface as does his first, “Two truths be told”. I have not seen Mr. Sanders in any of his film or television roles yet sense that is where his strength and reputation lies: onstage, Mr. Sanders starts anew with each entrance and trusts that his editor, uh, director will splice him into a rounded performance --- but Mr. Maler is not an actor’s director and so his Macbeth is reduced to a string of “takes”. Several times Mr. Sanders risks unwanted laughter with his own sitcom tricks: he will follow a bellowing rant with a sudden shift to casualness as if jump-cutting himself into a new emotion --- and the audience giggles (“Hey! He’s like Frasier Crane!”). Macbeth is composed of equal parts poet and warrior and many an actor is either one or the other; Mr. Sanders, all surface and strapping physique, is clearly the warrior half --- the mantles of the hide-bound Titus or Coriolanus might rest better on his shoulders.
I first saw Jennie Israel several months ago as VERONICA VAVOOM VOLCANOLOGIST where I described her as a comic dreadnought chained in its harbor; Ms. Israel is even more restrained as Lady Macbeth. A handsome, sturdy woman, Ms. Israel radiates enormous power which I hope she will unleash, someday --- say, as Albee’s Martha or Berlin’s Annie Oakley --- in the meantime, she carefully bustles about the CSC stage as if carrying a brimming cup of acid and fearful of spilling a drop; like her stage husband, Ms. Israel’s final scene is no different from her first: her sleepwalking is all too rushed and burning when she should be reduced to cold ashes (her slow, deadened exit at the end of Act One is more to the letter). But at least she is a stage actress and thus has a presence; perhaps with time --- or more sympathetic direction --- she would deepen her characterization into something memorable.
The large supporting cast is competent in their declamation; some, more than competent (this, in an age where Shakespeare is sandwiched in between Mamet and Shepherd, television and film; “Sure! I can do Shakespeare!”). Though she doubles as Lady Macduff, Julie Jirousek is a stunning modern-dress Gentlewoman, as lovely as Ms. Israel is handsome; Benjamin Evett, in fine voice as Banquo, bears a striking resemblance to a buzz-cut Dubya, down to his smirk --- and this is to be the source of many kings! Dan Domingues, recently an underpowered but lyrical Laetres for A.R.T., impresses further as Malcolm but his voice is still not ripe for full-throated declaiming. My binoculars picked out Dan Minkle among the extras; two years ago, Mr. Minkle was a fascinating, well-spoken Edmund for the now-defunct Ubiquity Stage Company and deserves a better fate than carrying a pole in the second row of the chorus.
Scott Bradley has designed the most impressive CSC setting yet: an authentic-enough proscenium theatre with upstage stairs climaxing at eye level so that characters pop up or dissolve with their entrances and exits; he has designed it, however, on a grand scale that rivals the Boston University Stage; though I sat only a few yards away, the actors were viewed as clothespin dolls with that vast, rickety arch yawning above them. Linda O’Brien’s lighting alternates between flushing the stage with red or draining it, and J. Hagenbuckle comes up with more dance-club variations for Robert Walsh’s now-predictable slow-motion battle scenes --- a signature to some; a cliché to others.
Here’s a bit of would-be merriment: in Act Two, Lady Macduff and her children are slaughtered and an assassin kicks over the boy’s bicycle for good measure --- again, the audience giggles. Red light floods the stage as the characters rise from the dead and tiptoe off in silhouette. A witch comes forward, picks up the bike and wheels it away. In my mind’s eye, the witch should mount the bike and, cackling wildly, ride it into the audience while the sound system booms the Miss Gulch theme from THE WIZARD OF OZ. Stylistically speaking, anything goes in a CSC production; if that be the case, why should the pancho-clad Porter get all the laughs?
Mrs. Dudgeon … Sheila Kadra
Essie … Julie LaCivita
Christy … Evan Bernstein
Rev. Anthony Anderson … David Berti
Judith Anderson … Melissa Sine
Uncle William … Gregory Mattingly
Mrs. William Dudgeon … Kate Mahoney
Uncle Titus … Dave Dobson
Mrs. Titus Dudgeon … Teri McDonald
Lawyer Hawkins … Robert Mackie
Dick Dudgeon … Grant Evans Wood
Sergeant … Brian McNamara
Major Swindon … Jonathan Ashford
General Burgoyne … James Ewell Brown
Mr. Brudenell …Dave Dobson
British Soldiers … John Chiachiaretta; Gregory Eburn; Brian McDonald
British Officers … Michael Donohue; Robert Mackie; Gregory Mattingly
Elijah Severance … Cameron Wood
Prodger Feston … D Schweppe
George Bernard Shaw in the summertime? Isn’t the Grand Old Man something to attend --- or, better still, to read --- on a cold winter’s night where we would be more in sync with his cerebral shafts of light? Not at all. We tend to forget the great man’s jovial humor and, like Beckett, his love for the theatrical. Mr. Shaw is no more alien to a summer night’s entertainment than is MY FAIR LADY, based upon his own PYGMALION (he was, after all, a contemporary of Wilde and Gilbert & Sullivan). THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE, one of his Plays for Puritans, can be found in the charming period arms of the Vokes Theatre; it’s a rousing melodrama with a candy surprise inside --- ironic comedy, bordering on farce --- and should definitely be sampled before others snap it up.
THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE is set in a small New Hampshire town in 1777, when the colonists were in open rebellion against the British and a man could easily get himself hanged for treason. Within this grim setting Mr. Shaw starts to work wonders: you may think he is writing a social drama in homage to his idol Ibsen but when Dick Dudgeon, the leading man, enters with his own brand of rebellion your jaw drops at the realization that not only is Mr. Shaw sending up melodrama itself --- the widowed, destitute mother; the black-sheep son who saves the husband of the woman he loves; the race of time against the gallows; etc. --- he had to first build up a convincing wall in order to have something to knock down. Tragedy, beaten out of doors by her sister, peeps in now and then but is never allowed to re-take center stage. To dwell on certain lines or bits would only weaken the fun; I’ll merely say that on the night I attended, the audience chuckled during Act One and positively roared during Act Two --- and this without much tweaking from the show’s director, John Barrett, and absolutely no camping from his cast.
Mr. Barrett’s production takes a while to warm up --- I gather many of his actors have never played melodrama before and are uncertain when to put their tongues in cheek --- and the early ensembles could be better orchestrated: Sheila Kadra makes a glorious meal out of that old bitch Mrs. Dudgeon but is saddled with a colorless Essie and Christy and obliged to give a yard instead of Mr. Shaw’s allotted inch, and Melissa Sine’s Judith Anderson is so remote in her first scene that it comes as a surprise when she turns out to be the leading lady. Happily, Grant Evans Wood contributes a brisk, deadpan Dick Dudgeon with timing one could set a clock to; since the play revolves around the effect Dick Dudgeon has on others, everyone soon knits into a good bread-and-butter company by becoming his stooges or foils (acting is reacting, they say). In addition to the excellent Ms. Kadra and to Ms. Sine who perks up for a hilarious tea scene with Mr. Wood, David Berti provides the necessary gravity as the Reverend Anderson, and James Ewell Brown and Jonathan Ashford are priceless as General Burgoyne and Major Swindon, who turn a roughhewn courthouse into an Edwardian drawing room.
Earlier this year, the Vokes Theatre scored with its valentine production of TINTYPES, as good as anything SpeakEasy Stage has done; in serving Mr. Shaw, Mr. Barrett and his cast triumph not through major funding, stars or directorial visions but through sincerity, common sense and by simply playing the play. Mr. Maler’s MACBETH may be free to the public but more pleasure can be had should you decide to go to the DEVIL.