Macbeth, Cal Shakes

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joel Sass
California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes)
Orinda, California
Aug. 18-Sept. 12, 2010

Jud Williford as Macbeth and Stacy Ross as Lady Macbeth in the Cal Shakes production of “Macbeth”
Photo by Kevin Berne

Ah, that Scottish play, ringed ’round with superstition, magical thinking and the possibility of an ancient curse. It is theatrical tradition not to utter “Macbeth” inside a theater unless delivering it in an actual line reading. Should someone let it slip, there are several suggested antidotes, such as spinning around three times and uttering a swear word, but we don’t have to get into that. Most of the time, actors, directors and their like simply refer to “the Scottish play.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that somebody uttered the forbidden name in Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda recently, but director Joel Sass certainly has delivered a strange interpretation of Shakespeare’s great tragedy of mayhem and murder on the moors. It’s not really cursed; just bloody, spooky and a tad confusing, due to over-zealous doubling of actors and shuffling around of speeches. Sass, who directed CalShakes’ lovely “Pericles” two seasons ago, has done some really creative re-imagining here. But, in his self-confessed zeal to give us “a sort of David Lynch-y quality,” he also has delivered a David Lynch kind of muddle.

It’s very cool to set the scene in a decrepit field hospital/asylum (cracked windows and filthy sink by Daniel Ostling) with the three witches as faceless nurse/nuns in blood-smeared habits (those and some really stunning gowns for Lady Macbeth by Christal Weatherly), but the set doesn’t change when we move to Macbeth’s castle – except for the addition of a couch and some crystal glasses. In fact, it stays the same throughout the play. And that doesn’t really work. It also is cool to set the whole thing in modern times and have Banquo and his son (Nicholas Pelczar and Noah Baldwin) make their escape – however brief – on motorcycles, but the helmets muffle the lines. It was a stroke of genius to cast Delia MacDougall as the loyal Ross, and she gives a fine performance, but was it really necessary to put us through her harrowing torture scene right out of “The Boys From Brazil”? The assassination of MacDuff’s wife (Omozé Idehenre) and children is no less graphically brutal. And there is gore and bloody entrails enough to satisfy the most devoted horror film fan.

James Carpenter is one of the Bay Area’s finest actors and, when he initially is seen as the soon-to-be-murdered King Duncan, one thinks, “Yeah, fine, he has the dignity for the part.” And, when he comes on a few moments after Duncan’s murder as the drunken porter at the gate, it may be a little weird but one thinks, “OK, he has the acting chops for this.” But when he reappears as an archbishop, an assassin and various other walk-ons, you can’t help thinking they should have spent a few extra bucks for more cast members. It becomes giggle-provoking after a while – and this is not a comedy.

Jud Williford plays the title role and he does it well, although he is a bit young to play a grizzled veteran of the Scottish wars. He is a bundle of nerves before and right after he begins his killing spree but, once he is firmly ensconced on the throne, he is both definite and devious in his murderous resolve to stay there. But it is Stacy Ross’ Lady M. who runs away with the show. Cal Shakes’ recent “Mrs. Warren,” Ross is magnificent in her evil intent and moving in her guilt. The sleepwalking scene, which ends in the queen being taken away on a gurney into the bowels of the hospital, is the finest I’ve ever seen. (Unfortunately, it also has Carpenter again, this time playing a Viennese psychiatrist.)

With the compression of scenes and fast pace, the play goes by quickly and, given the frigid August temperatures in the outdoor Bruns Amphitheater, that’s a good thing. But some of the liberties with Shakespeare’s script may be unforgivable. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” is one of the greatest soliloquies ever penned by the Bard of Avon. It is meant to be spoken when Macbeth hears of his wife’s death. But Sass has the protagonist utter just the word “Tomorrow” upon viewing Lady Macbeth’s corpse, leaving us to wonder when the rest of it will come. Perhaps tomorrow? No, it actually closes this production, granted a more socko ending than the one Shakespeare wrote. This, like many of the director’s innovations, may improve the show but it doesn’t do a lot for the play.

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