There is a stereotype that runs rampant throughout the Los Angeles theatrical community. The idea that most productions are merely actor showcases under the guise of dramatic entertainment is almost an assumption—an assumption that must be broken by a consistent design and performance. In some ways, it becomes an elevated challenge to produce solid theatre due to this powerful pre-conceived notion. Declan Adams Theatre’s production of Macbeth does little to change this persistent identity of Los Angeles store-front theatre.
Located at the NoHo Actors Studio in North Hollywood, the space seems as much a classroom for scene-work as home for Shakespeare’s words. Walking into the theatre itself presents the audience with an exceptionally wide proscenium space that appears flat—and, unfortunately, it isn’t the only element of the production that lacks depth.
Jeff Morris’ conception of Macbeth centers on the basic themes of greed and ego in a contemporary American political system. Due to the inherent parallels between the text and the current events surrounding our administration, the idea is certainly not very original. There have been numerous productions around just the Los Angeles area that have made very similar choices. Yet, the execution is the main enemy of this production’s success. The actors wear modern suits, there is an American flag flying in the background, there are sound effects of helicopters trolling overhead, and the instruments of murder are guns and knives. Sadly, these are the only substantial elements that have been added to the unchanged dialogue. As a result, the updating of the classic tragedy feels woefully forced and without any true inspiration.
The extremely low-budget set design by Brian Reindal appears virtually unnecessary. There are occasional chairs and tables that move between scenes. The black walls have chalk echoes of “Red, White and Blue.” There is a fairly elaborate chalk mural of state buildings on the back wall, and a single American flag that hangs from one of the walls unceremoniously. However, none of these elements add dimension to the actors' performances. Each element feels haphazard and none are aesthetically pleasing. A completely blank stage would have been less distracting, and the ambiguity may have allowed the audience to create more parallels for themselves.
Mark Matthew Buenaluz is unable to do anything with the limited lighting system to aid in bringing depth to the monochromatic set design. Armed with only a few instruments, Buenalez uses no color or angle to pop the actors out from the background. To make matters worse, there are dead spots in which the performers are in shadows (which does nothing for dramatic effect).
The costumes suffer from a similar malady. Many of the suits fit poorly, which truly lessens the image of untouchable government figureheads. Lady Macbeth wears outfits that are vaguely reminiscent of Jackie-O, which don’t ever quit fit in with the rest of the male and female politicians. There was no individual costume designer, and it shows in the inconsistent look of the production. Overall, the production design isn’t abrasive—it simply presents the time and place without any artistic flair or attention to realistic detail.
As with most Shakespeare productions, the words can often make up for the lack of impressive production value. However, to reap this reward, the performers must allow the words to drive their emotion, physicality and tempo. In this case, the performers seem to fight the inherent rhythms in the language at every turn. Jeff Holden plays a stiff and predictable Macbeth, and ultimately, most of the performers suffer from a stiffness that plays in direct opposition to the passionate behavior present throughout the story. Holden seems like a competent performer, and never has completely unbelievable moments, but there is very little to see in the way of post-traumatic stress of a warrior now walking amongst politicians. Lady Macbeth, played by Wallis Herst, is often meek and shows few discernable tactics in her efforts to guide Macbeth towards his inevitable end. The relationship lacks sexual energy and tension, and Herst does very little to emasculate her paranoid husband. The rest of the cast performs in a variety of styles which makes the overall tempo erratic and jerky. William Jennings plays a simple, kind Banquo with an almost soap opera quality. Patrick Blakely is over-the-top as Seaton/The Porter and belongs in a musical or farcical comedy. Megan Morrison is subtle, yet unbelievable as Duncan/Hecate/Lady MacDuff/Young Siward. Overall, the performances are disconnected and without a tone of ensemble.
Los Angeles theatre is costly and extraordinarily difficult to produce in a complete manner. Good ideas and competent performers tend to lose the battle to rehearsal time, traffic and budget. Shakespeare, however, can often stand by itself with a cast and crew that put faith in the words rather than a grand social statement. As an audience member, it is truly a shame when the text is lost amongst political themes and ideology. The visceral emotions held within “The Scottish Play” aren’t allowed to play in Declan Adams Theatre’s store-front production, and the result is a long evening in North Hollywood.