Note: This review is part of a new feature section on Phindie: Critical Mass. Each week during the play’s run, a reviewer from this publication will return to the Arden to reconsider the work and respond to previous critical takes. Read more about this here.
Alexander Burns’s production of MACBETH at Arden Theatre Company is energetic and visually engaging, but it lacks ferocity and substance.
With Shakespeare the director always faces a choice of what to cut from the original text, even with a short play like MACBETH. Burns, like many directors before him, chose to start the play by leaving out the second scene where Macbeth’s valor and brutality on the battlefield are described with moments of exceptional poetry. That scene is turned into an action sequence that fits the fast pace of this production, but the cut is problematic because the second scene gives us essential information about Macbeth’s character and it partially explains why he later sees murder as a plausible way to a fast “promotion”. Directorial choices like this make the production skip opportunities for exploring the depths of Macbeth, which sells short the complexity of the character and the play for the sake of a faster pace and thrilling visuals.
Yet much is salvaged by Ian Merrill Peakes’ formidable portrayal of Macbeth that shows an impressive grasp on Shakespeare’s language. He gives us a murderous king, but also the self-doubt and hesitation that are crucial to Macbeth’s character—even if the performance doesn’t always have the intensity one might hope. And yes, his “tomorrow speech” is original and compelling. Unfortunately his counterpart Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady Macbeth lacks the presence needed for the role. Her performance has its moments, particularly at the beginning of the play, but overall it’s monotonous and the lack of chemistry between the Macbeths is painfully noticeable in a play where sex and sexuality play a significant role. The rest of the cast is as uneven as the leads. Christopher Patrick Mullen as the porter and Aimé Donna Kelly as Lady Macduff deliver superb performances while Josh Carpenter’s Malcolm is thoroughly lukewarm and almost everyone else seems content to recite their lines instead of owning the potent poetry in them.
Most reviews have lauded the sound, set and lighting design, and for a good reason. Several audience members were genuinely startled by the thunderous storm while the melodramatic music and apt lighting worked well with the contemporary aesthetic of the production. The dramatic set design took full advantage of what the Arden stage can do to such an extent the impressive combination of set, sound and lighting design threatened to overtake the often underwhelming drama unfolding on stage. The costume design, on the other hand, reverted to a gimmick any avid theatergoer has seen one time too many: the costumes were a combination of different periods, which supposedly makes a rather obvious point of universality. It’s a redundant notion in a play like this, so the only thing the costumes accomplish is making the actors look like they were dragged through a flea market on their way to the stage.
For all its flash and energy, Arden’s Macbeth is a bloodless production that’s entertaining to watch but leaves you cold. [Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street] March 5-April 19, 2015; ardentheatre.org.
Other reviews of MACBETH:
- Critical Mass 1, Christopher Munden, Phindie.com: “exuberant and understandable—though perhaps shallow“
- Howard Shapiro, NewsWorks.org: “unusual, starting with the editing“
- Steve Cohen, BroadStreetReview.com: “a straightforward telling of the story“
- Judy Cohen, Beyond My Backyard: “one of the smash hits of the season“
- Toby Zinman, Philly.com: “A riveting new production“
- Neal Zoren, NealsPaper.com: “creditable production never finds a launching point“
- Christina Perryman, DelcoNewsNetwork.com: “well-acted and moving study of Macbeth’s rise and fall“
- David Anthony Fox, CityPaper.net: “honorable but tame production“