by Larry Bommer
January 21, 2009
Because evil feeds on its own excess, the Scottish tragedy explodes in slow motion. Its unstoppable course takes an easily duped Macbeth (perverted by both supernatural and spousal counselors) from slaughter to success to decomposition. Never can a creature who profits from others’ loss have a moment’s peace (or a night’s sleep). The escalating energy of Barbara Gaines’ staging fuels a depiction of galloping guilt, driving Macbeth to his doom: A knife fight with Macduff that looks too furious to be choreographed sends him to hell, while Lady Macbeth’s graphic suicide ends in a bloody bathtub.
Visceral and universal as these emotions feel, the production itself is sleekly, sometimes superficially, up to date. Armed with closed-circuit cameras, press jackals cover every Caledonian power play. Kevlar coats replace armor. Thunder and gunfire vie for decibel supremacy. Disco decadence suggests courtly corruption. The royal banquet is a swank cocktail party with a view of midtown Manhattan. A row of riot shields suggest the “Birnam woods” that have come to Dunsinane.
The technology also works to swell the story: Projections on Lady Macbeth’s robes depict the bloody deeds that haunt her heart. By play’s end her boudoir recalls the World Trade Center’s twisted rebar. A bulletproof enclosure recalls “Evita” more than medieval Scotland. Mark Bailey’s sets and costumes, studies in cold gray and basic black, make the blood stand out like a scream. In contrast, the playroom for Macduff’s children couldn’t be more suburban or less suitable for slaughter. This scary specificity becomes “too much information” when an airport departure sign accompanies the flight of Macbeth’s enemies to England.
As always, the players must root the truth in Shakespeare’s undatable psychology of cruelty and shame. Ben Carlson’s Macbeth goes from insecurity and ambivalence to the reckless resignation of a killing machine with nothing and everything to lose. As his hatemate, Karen Aldridge seemed shaky on opening night but self-destructed well enough by her final literal bloodbath.
All other roles pale before them. But Phillip James Brannon’s Obama-like portrayal, besides sinisterly implying that Macbeth is George Bush, radiates hope for Scotland’s recovery. Evan Buliung’s Macduff suffers and rages like an angry sea, while Danforth Comins’ valiant Banquo suggests the nobility that should have ruled the kingdom. As the joke-cracking porter, Mike Nussbaum is a Las Vegas insult artist working the crowd. That they hold their own against the sound and fury (not, however, signifying nothing) of Gaines’ techno-savvy production amounts to a small theatrical triumph.