The Scottish Play has certainly made its rounds this year, and understandably so. Macbeth is a play that deals with (among a slew of other things) personal and political ambition, uncertain times, an affected state of the union, and the fallibility and corruptibility of those who lead. The doublespeak circulating in the words, “fair is foul and foul is fair,” creates an unreliable atmosphere of mistrust, while deconstructing the very grounds on which we think we stand. These are big, important, potent, virile themes that forcefully make a statement and pack a punch. Mark Jackson’s production of Macbeth is prefaced by a barrage of statements linking political ambition to the glitz and glamor of the haves versus have nots, and the swinish poseurs who look pretty good in lipstick. But like much of the media hype out there, these are unfortunate rumors about a production that fails to make clear contact with its target, unless, of course, the points here are to advertise some pretty spectacular couture clothing from costume sponsor Foley and Bonny, and for me to despise these Scots because I can’t begin to afford Lady Macbeth’s fabulous collection of shoes.
This production doesn’t completely lack intrigue. Nina Ball’s set design—less the ceiling to floor gold metallic column streaming the backdrop—proves genius, although this touch of greatness is not realized until the final scene of the production when the fashion show-inspired thrust stage literally opens and the sharpened trunks of Birnam Wood penetrate the house. The measure is violent and pulled off well by the cast who manually crack open the stage for this spectacular finish. Sound and lighting design by Sarah Huddleston and Jon Tracy, respectively, are bold and dramatic, with low, long, rumbling tones vibrating scenes of anticipatory gore. But a tendency of these two to spotlight and dramatically hone in on Macbeth’s soliloquies and asides ridiculously deflates these moments and evokes recurring laughter from the audience.
Expertly-placed blood pellets are abundant, and murders are blatant, sometimes to the good of the production and sometimes not so much. The murder of Banquo (Daniel Duque-Estrada) and Fleance (Cassady Bogatin) is swift and cold and all the more horrible due to the actors’ portrayal of an endearing familial bond. Duque-Estrada delivers a fine Banquo, both alive and dead. But the murder of Duncan (John Mercer), which encourages the imagination to conjure a scene that is just too horrible to show, by typically occurring offstage, is poorly staged and awkwardly visible, imbruing comedy (or perhaps confusing himself with Hal in Henry IV Part II) when Craig Marker as Macbeth removes and replaces the crown on Mercer’s head, before Mercer’s drawn out death scene, which is perhaps suitable for Pyramus, but bordering on asinine here. And for all the blood and blatant gore in this production, one expects to see something in Macduff’s murder of Macbeth, but alas, it occurs offstage and proves stunted.
This cast is stiff, with X-marks the spot posing on the catwalk in a seeming attempt to show that their trousers have roomy pockets, or their briefcases are of fine leather, versus moving and feeling with the language and weighty import of this play. Granted it’s important to make certain you don’t get any theatrical blood on your $1,500 Hickey Freeman suit, but this is not the place for fashion over form. There are some happy exceptions. Blythe Foster’s show-saving portrayal of Lady Macbeth is sexy and stunning and even though Lady Macbeth is a villain, Foster’s mad scene is heartbreaking. Foster has no problem whatsoever with showing some skin, and sometimes perhaps shows more than even she’s aware as she thankfully shies away from X-marks the spot blocking, her youthful body writhing on the stage in her flimsy lingerie.
Zehra Berkman portrays three witches in an electrifying one, well-dressed as a homeless vagrant with a plastic water bottle for a cauldron, which she uses to possess and conjure Foster’s soul to deliver apparitions to Macbeth. This production could have used a bit more of Berkman’s presence, however, to link her spiritual guidance to Macbeth’s ambitious intents. Berkman also serves as the well-shoed Lady Macduff, showing she has a good sense of humor as the Porter speaks of lechery and the lack thereof. This is in dire contrast to Macduff (Peter Ruocco), whose flaccid “Oh horror, horror, horror” and “O Scotland, Scotland!” are anticlimactic, at best. Some lesser roles are well-delivered by Reid Davis as the Porter and Kevin Clarke who opens the play as a most disturbing bloody sergeant and penetrates his later scenes as Macbeth’s right-hand murdering man.
There are lots of pretty people on this stage. Pretty people wearing pretty clothing. Macbeth’s armor is leather with a sexy bit of lacing up the rear of his pants. Daniel Bruno (Ross) and Daniel Krueger (Lennox) show their sponsor’s collection of black business suits, complete with briefcases (always and for no apparent reason) in hand. Lady Macbeth wears a long plum gown and some smashing black patent leather sling back pumps during the banquet scene turn cocktail party, and I still can’t get her introductory ankle boots out of my head. Even the obviously pregnant Lady Macduff sports three-inch chunky brown pumps. That’s a feat in itself. And there’s Banquo’s flashy purple shirt and the Porter’s snazzy jacket. I could go on, but I almost forgot this is a theatre review, not a write-up for Vogue magazine.
Macbeth plays Thursday through Saturday at 8PM and Sundays at 5PM through Sunday, January 11, 2009 on the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, CA. Tickets are $30 general admission, $12 for members. To reserve tickets, please call (510) 841-6500.