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Prophesy Points to Possibilities in the Scottish Play Hot

Denise Battista
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Written by Denise Battista     March 02, 2009    
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Prophesy Points to Possibilities in the Scottish Play

Photos: Jenny Graham and Jennifer Reiley

  • Macbeth
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • February 13 - November 1, 2009
Acting 4
Costumes 4
Sets 4
Directing 3
Overall 4

Australian director Gale Edwards is working her way through Shakespeare’s canon, and after twenty years of direction in the US and abroad, Edwards delivers a dark, yet forward thinking production of The Scottish Play that tries to focus on the inner turmoil and choices of Macbeth, as well as the cyclical, generational choices of humanity, with images of a war-torn state ravaged by ambition, and the conscious decision to be or not to be plagued by the power of a prophetic past.

Scott Bradley’s set design both helps and hinders this production. Molten rock smolders around the perimeter of the dark and eerie stage holding a grandiose staircase that swirls up and off stage right. This decadence is merely an illusion, however, as its foundation is a cracked and tumbling pile of rubble, resembling a collapsed bridge or overpass. The staircase maintains its structure by only threads of stability, and the intricate wrought iron railings are increasingly deformed the higher one ascends. Metaphors abound, likening the cracked foundation, the seeming beauty of the golden railings, and the molten rock to images of a broken political and moral state, the sometimes deceitful nature of success, and how ambition may lead one to spiral into the heights of oblivion, or into the pits of hell. While the cast gets quite a workout flying up and down the staircase, the design seems to leave the actors stranded front and center, delivering lines too much to the audience rather than permitting us to engage in any sort of dramatic action or interchange. Connecting with the audience is fine for soliloquies and asides, but in this production, it lessens interaction and believability between the actors, turning drama into a sporadic series of one-man shows.

In his second season at OSF, Peter Macon takes the role of Macbeth, but he never seems to take it far enough. If Macon is compensating for going a quarter-step too far last season as Othello (a show of brilliance by this measuring stick), I’d say it’s time to shake it off and let the scorpions rage, because in order to connect with Macbeth as a man overcome by the pressures and poisons of ambition, perhaps as a willing victim of prophesy, and as a detrimental result of the conscious decisions he makes, we must first connect with him on a human level. Otherwise, Macbeth is just a villain, visible as a spectacle of otherness rather than as a mirror of omens. Macon shows glints of passion, and opens up considerably after losing his wife in the second Act, but he sometimes seems to be running lines and going through motions rather than inviting us on his journey. With an invitation like this, how can we care about him in the end or throughout?

We do care about his wife. Robin Goodrin Nordli is strong, seductive, and villainous, and a Freudian dream as she inevitably cracks under the pressures of her own conscience, ending any brief candle of mediation between superego and id. Before crumbling into an incessant obsession of hand washing, Lady Macbeth is part of the “Haves,” decked out in one amazing red gown after another, bedecked in rubies given by the unassuming Duncan (James J. Peck), and confident in her female prowess and undaunted mettle. Costume designer Murrell Horton uses a dark palate of various fabrics and textures in this production, splashed with blood red and military uniforms. Horton introduces Shakespeare to Disney when Lady becomes Queen, likening Nordli a little too much to Snow White’s wicked royalty once she and her husband take the Scottish reins; however, Nordli holds no apple and never falters, even if her character inevitably does. Nordli saves many a scene from falling flat, including a relatively anticlimactic banquet scene that pits Macbeth and the bloody Banquo (Rex Young) against one another on the casket-like banquet table, with Young’s Rumble Fish gestures evoking more snickers than fear.

Edwards plays some interesting tricks with the witches. Robynn Rodriguez, Perri Gaffney, and K.T. Vogt are ghoulish, with hair hearkening back to the powdered wigs of the 18th Century, granted after spending time in hell. Their blackened eyes and hollowed faces are even more harrowing due to Mark McCullough’s brilliant lighting design that glows from below. The same lighting affect underscores Nordli as she prepares for her husband’s return from the field, conjuring spirits for his ear while reading his letter. It also draws an indirect connection between the witches and the Lady. This production emphasizes the power of the next generation and the lack there of, as is the case with Macbeth’s barren scepter, and with the murder of all of Macduff’s pretty ones. Edwards offers the audience not three but six witches, including a young trio of silent conjurers, perhaps blurring the line between past, present, and future, but their presence is an overall question mark as to their relevance in the play. This aside, Edwards leaves the audience screaming and gasping for air when they get a taste of what’s inside the witches’ cauldron. If these grotesque, garbage pail kid apparitions don’t get your heart racing, nothing will.

Kevin Kenerly as Macduff delivers a heartbreaking scene upon learning that his wife and children have been slaughtered. Shakespeare’s words are painful and vivid, and Kenerly apprehends every emotion as he mourns and regrets his loss. Kenerly gives us a man with honor, integrity, pride in his country, and depths of emotion before giving Scotland a hero in the end of the play. He also offers the most human characterization on this stage, and for that, he evokes tears.

Without changing Shakespeare’s play, Edwards includes a subtle nod to the witches’ early prophesy that Banquo “…shalt get kings, though thou be none.” It is thought that Shakespeare offered many a nod to his king and patron, James I of England (previously James VI of Scotland), who was said to be a direct descendant of the real Banquo. This theory was disproven in the 19th century, and the actual existence of an historical Banquo is also questioned, but not until well after Shakespeare presented his play in the early years of King James’ rule. Edwards explores what may have been Shakespeare’s intentions, and in effect, leaves the ending of the play open to a sequel that Shakespeare never wrote. This conspiracy involves the witches and Banquo’s surviving son, Fleance (Nikolas Horaites), who in effect gets more stage time for the sake of recognition. It also explores a provocative question about authorial intent, and opens up a play like Macbeth, that for many has a set beginning and end, to an array of possibilities.

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