Complexities abound in MACBETH, Shakespeare’s tragedy about a warrior lord tempted by prophesies to seize and hold the Scottish throne. Perhaps it is the wealth of possible interpretations which makes the play so frequently produced. Is it about ambition? fate? our struggle to control our own destiny? Is Macbeth a martial strongman? a bullied husband? a doubt-riddled tragic hero? Productions often get bogged down tackling these themes, or burden themselves with an incongruous resetting intended to show the universality of the brutal tale.
Not so director Carmen Khan’s staging for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. This is a solidly accessible MACBETH, with comprehensible delivery and an easy-to-follow story—the kind of Shakespeare you go see with your high school class. Audiences can judge for themselves whether that is faint praise.
Rob Kahn takes a muscular approach to the lead; Macbeth’s soldierly background comes through convincingly. “Goes Fleance with you?” he asks his comrade-in-arms, Banquo (Eric Van Wie, in a somewhat enervated performance), referring to the offspring predicted to succeed Macbeth’s ill-gotten crown. Like much of Kahn’s delivery, the line sizzles with menace; if Kahn and Van Wie had better communicated the depth of Macbeth and Banquo’s friendship it would roar with tragic foreboding.
Khan sets a whirlwind pace in her direction. Scenes which drag down or seem out of place in other productions—the conversation between Lady MacDuff (Elise Hudson) and her child (Jenna Kuerzi) as Macbeth’s former allies begin to abandon him and the scene when MacDuff (William LeDent) is given news of his family’s brutal killing—are well-timed and congruent.
The latter features a fine turn by Josh Kachnycz as Malcolm; the prince of Cumberland whose claim to the throne Macbeth “o’erleaps” by murdering his father. Kachnycz’s Malcolm grows in nobility and strength over the course of the play, so he seems truly ready for the crown by the denouement.
Another performance is particularly praiseworthy in Philly Shakes staging. In too many productions, the role of Lady Macbeth is played almost as two parts: a conniving temptress urging her husband to murder in act one; a madwoman ex nihilo in act two. Annabel Capper delivers a performance of unified nervousness, most adroitly in the banquet scene: As her husband rages against an unseen ghost (unseen even by the audience in this production), Capper’s Lady M shivers with nervous discomfort.
The scene stands out for its tangible humanity in a production which seems content to deliver Shakespeare’s beautiful language and tragic storyline without delving into his human themes. Much of the acting is “larger” than the small three-sided staging (simple set by Bethanie Wampol) would seem to require: looks of conspiracy or confusion are given actorly accentuation; when ensemble member Jenna Kuerza plays a child, she appears with a teddy bear.
These touches help make Khan’s production so thoroughly understandable, but they elide some of the complexity of Shakespeare’s work. Overlooking the subtleties in the relationships robs the language of some of its beauty (if we don’t appreciate how close Macbeth and his wife are, we lose the feeling behind the “tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, for example) and the plot of some of its tragedy. Fortunately, there’s a surplus of beauty retained, and a wealth of human tragedy still contained in a taught, solid staging of a classic.
[2111 Sansom Street] April 1-May 21, 2016; phillyshakespeare.org.