Chicago's close-up look at Shakespeare's heart of darkness Chicago production of Shakespeare's most intense tragedy would give Darth Vader pause.
by Richard Ouzounian
February 10, 2009
CHICAGO—Yes, it's full of sound and fury, but it also signifies a hell of a lot.
We're talking about the larger-than-life production of Macbeth that artistic director Barbara Gaines has staged at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, starring Canadians Ben Carlson (as Macbeth) and Evan Buliung (as Macduff).
Anyone who knows Chicago theatre will recognize this as one of those big-shouldered, high-spirited productions that this city loves. A few years ago, Robert Falls did a similar mega-testosterone approach to King Lear at the Goodman, and now it's Gaines's turn.
It's one of those shows that is not served well by a simple description, because a catalogue of the blood and violence and overt sexuality Gaines has brought to the work might sound merely excessive.
But, when it's all over, one cold clear fact remains: this production took me closer to the heart of darkness that lies inside Shakespeare's shortest and most intense tragedy than any I have seen before.
Gaines has shown herself recently to be a director coming into a richly imaginative mode of staging, as her fabulistic production of Cymbeline, starring Juan Chioran, showed several years ago.
But I don't think any of us were prepared for this journey to the dark side that would have given Darth Vader pause.
Lasers flash, blood spurts, victims scream and sensuality is interwoven with violence in a deeply distressing way.
It's almost as though Gaines had decided to tap into the nether regions of our subconscious and bring up the worst that mankind had to offer.
When Lady Macbeth speaks of pulling the babe from her nipples, she stands in front of us brazenly bare-breasted. Blood flows freely, witches turn into dominatrixes, and the razor's edge between sensuality and obsession is crossed time and time again.
Yes, we are in modern dress. In a lakeshore Chicago penthouse, no less, while the cocktail pianist plays "Witchcraft" to ironically underscore the play's supernatural theme.
But in the twinkling of an eye, we move to a world where blood and gore threaten to surround everyone and violence only begets more violence.
Carlson's maniacal thane is the key here. A seemingly temperate military type, he flies off the handle when power is dangled in front of him and a sexually supercharged wife (the erotically demonic Karen Aldridge) starts pulling the strings.
Carlson is magnificent to watch as he embraces evil, clutches it close to his bosom and then starts to question the horror of what he has done.
"O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!" he shrieks out as guilt consumes him and we watch him on the quick sad road to damnation.
When he tells us that life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," we believe him, because we know he is one who has "supp'd full with horrors."
Two things besides Carlson's resonant humanity prevent Gaines's production from turning into a mere catalogue of grand guignol. One is the sensitive and noble performance of Buliung as Macduff, finding strength in his remorse and purifying passion in his need for revenge against the hated Macbeth.
The other is a trifle glib, but incredibly resonant. The chilly Malcolm, who comes at the play's end to redeem everyone and bring us back to supposed normality, is played by Phillip James Brannon with a resemblance to Barack Obama that can't possibly be coincidental.
Gaines has taken us to the gate of hell with her production and then brought us back to the world we live in now. It's a harrowing and thrilling experience, but it's Carlson who lifts it into the sublime.