nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
November 20, 2008
After seeing many productions of Shakespeare's plays—and after the texts have been part of our everyday speech for almost half a millennium—we've reached a point where each production of any of his plays says more about its director than it does about the play itself; it becomes a Rorschach blot reflecting the director's preoccupations.
James Phillip Gates, in directing Macbeth, sees in the text a story about a soldier driven mad by what he's done. Quite astutely, in this day of privatized warfare, Gates's Macbeth is a hybrid soldier/gangster, and Trey Ziegler's entrance as the title character with his shaved head, goatee, and leather jacket, aiming his gun suspiciously, establishes him as such immediately.
To briefly recap the narrative, familiar to many but by no means all, with minimal spoilers: the play opens with three "weird sisters" with some fortune-telling abilities who predict great things for a young nobleman named Macbeth, Thane of Fife. They proclaim him also Thane of Cawdor—although that post is currently occupied—and "king hereafter." When, after the weird sisters vanish, another noble informs Macbeth that he has just been dubbed Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth begins to think how he can become king. With the help of his fiercely ambitious wife, Macbeth goes on to kill everyone in his way—including the king, whose throne Macbeth takes for his own, fulfilling that aspect of the prophecy. Emboldened by a further prophecy by the weird sisters that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," he becomes convinced that he is invulnerable. However, he becomes haunted by his actions, his wife goes mad, and eventually Macbeth meets his end at the hand of one who is "from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd," or born by Caesarean section.
Gates's Macbeth is one of the most visually and aurally gorgeous pieces of theatre I've ever seen. Casey Smith's set is both aesthetic and functional, looking equally suitable as the Macbeths' bedroom as it is a basement where men are tortured as it is a warehouse gangsters' meeting place. Travis Sawyer's noir-y, shadowy lighting design brings out every last bit of darkness and menace in this world (and, no less importantly, makes the actors look terrific). John Kemp's sound design, although less noticeable, manages to seamlessly incorporate the sound of the smoke machine that adds to the visual mystery.
The cast, alas, is slightly uneven. Ziegler's Macbeth is strong, but he seems to go mad due more to the script saying he does than to anything in particular. Tracy Hostmyer's Lady M is even better, a far more sexual take on the role than one usually sees; she's so good in the part that it serves as a reminder that however memorable she may be, Lady M does not appear a whole lot. Hostmyer's absence is felt quite potently in the second half. The tension flags severely during the scenes near the end with Malcolm and Macduff; neither Isaac Woofter nor Duane Boutte, respectively, seems comfortable with Shakespeare's language, and both race through text, although this may be due to a fear that the tension is flagging, thus creating a chicken-and-egg problem. The weird sisters (Kristin Barnett, Melissa Center, Emily Hubelbank) are used unconventionally, and quite interestingly; they deliver one prophecy to Macbeth in the middle of a ménage-a-quatre, and appear at the end to the new king as well in a smart touch that ties into Gates's meditations on war and gangsterism; neither has a real end.
(While on the topics of war and gangsterism, the note in the program warning of graphic violence should be heeded; in particular, anyone uncomfortable with violence against women and children should be forewarned.)
Any problems with the acting, however, pale in comparison to the near-peerless visual spectacle that is Roust's Macbeth. Acting problems could be attributable to an off night (or even my own incredibly knotty and convoluted prejudices about Shakespearean acting; my companion thought Woofter and Boutte were fine), but great design is forever. Oh, and the script is pretty good, too.
Gates is a director to watch—if his work continues to have the same intensity, intelligence and visual flair and visual flair as his Macbeth, I eagerly await his future output.