Critical Mass: Arden’s MACBETH introduces a new feature on Phindie

Readers of Phindie will know that I’m a big fan of William Shakespeare. Yet in the Fall, when I got an invitation to see a favored young Shakespeare group, Revolution Shakespeare, produce a Cajun-themed version of one of my favorite plays, Macbeth, I decided not to attend. I’d already seen four production of the work in the previous year.

I’ll be in attendance when the same play receives another workout by the Arden Theatre Company this month, as the much-produced piece seems the perfect production with which to launch a new critical feature: Critical Mass. Each week during the course of the play’s run a writer from Phindie will see and review the work and respond to it and to the reviews which came before it (in this series and elsewhere).

Review 1: Christopher Munden
Review 2: Ninni Saajola
Review 3: Jessica Foley
Review 4: Julius Ferraro
Reviews from other publications

MACBETH at the Arden. Photo by Brian Sidney Bembridge.

MACBETH at the Arden. Photo by Brian Sidney Bembridge.

Why Critical Mass?
Generally, critics attend just one performance of a production, and most reviewers will have seen the same show. Critical Mass will provide multiple critical takes on a production and look at it across the course of its run, not just in the bubble that is an opening night performance.

It will also highlight an essential fact about critical opinion: it is one person’s point of view (City Paper reviewer Mark Cofta aptly called himself “just one asshole with an opinion.”). Often, two reviewers from the same publication will have widely different takes on a piece. As the editor of Phindie and a frequent audience member at local productions, I often find I disagree with the opinion of reviewers whose work I publish. This is not to say that the writer’s opinion is not valid and worthy, but that I do not share it. I may like a play for different reasons, see flaws which the critic did not address, or find appeal in a production where the writer found little.

Last year, Phindie writer Jessica Foley’s review of the Arden’s Three Sisters sparked a lively back and forth in the comment section with another Phindie critic, Michael Fisher, about the merits of the play. Talking to other critics, there was a clear divide of opinion. (And not just among critics: the play ranked highly in Phindie’s end-of-season awards and was not even nominated for a Barrymore.) I was enamoured by the soft opening, as we drifted from seeing contemporary actors in a rehearsal room to a full-blown production of Chekov, a representation of the way we drift into the magic of a theatrical experience. I’ve had multiple debates about the merits of this with other Phindie writers, interesting conversations which might have made for an engaging read. Instead, these disagreements are hidden from public view.

There’s a reason they remain private affairs: It’s pretty unprofessional to call out another writer for a considered opinion. But Critical Mass will allow intelligent and thoughtful writers to engage with each other’s opinions respectfully in a public forum.

Jahzeer Terrell as a soldier, Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, Terence Macsweeny and Sean Bradley as Soldiers in MACBETH at the Arden. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jahzeer Terrell as a soldier, Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, Terence Macsweeny and Sean Bradley as Soldiers in MACBETH at the Arden. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Another Macbeth?

There’s a longstanding superstition among actors that you don’t say Macbeth in a theater (it’s “the Scottish play”), one which I have offended a bunch recently explaining this concept. (If PTC folds, we know who to blame. Maybe.) Paradoxically, the superstition seems to derive from the very popularity of the play: A failing company in its death throes might produce Macbeth as a sure-fire audience pleaser. When the company succumbs to its unpreventable decline, the production can seem like the cause.

I’ve heard various claims about which Shakespeare play (read just: which play) is the most performed, but Macbeth must be high on the list. It’s not difficult to see the attraction for directors: there’s blood and gore, witches and ghosts, one of the strongest female characters in the Bard’s canon, and some mind-bogglingly insightful and beautiful language.

There’s also something about the central characters which invite directoral interpretation. Harold Bloom famously credited Shakespeare with “the invention of the human”. He reserved his highest praise for Hamlet and Falstaff, who Bloom saw as more than mere characters, but rather living beings. You could easily picture the pair in a different context: they seem to have a personality which Shakespeare’s text doesn’t contain.

The same can hardly be said for Macbeth. From the beginning of the play, the character is reacting to events far outside his previous life. Shakespeare gives hints about his basic personality “brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name”), but is he a militaristic brute, or a sensitive man of his times. He must have had a fair amount of ambition to become an admired general and lord, but how much? Does he seize upon the witches predictions to take something he has long coveted, or does he feel obliged to fulfill the inevitable?

Man’s battle with fate is central to Shakespeare’s tragedy; and directors can choose to emphasize this from the very first scene. Shakespeare’s text begins with a brief scene (Act 1, Scene 1) of the three witches before breaking into a conversation (Act 1, Scene 2) in the court of King Duncan, in which we learn that Macbeth has been made Thane of Cawdor. The action then returns to the witches (Act 1, Scene 3), as Macbeth enters and learns he is receive that title (and eventually the kingship). Many directors choose to skip Scene 2 (and often Scene 1), robbing the audience of their confidence in the witches’ prognostications.

There are other moments which I look to in every production: How quick is Macbeth’s entrance after Duncan says “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”; how does Banquo react when Macbeth asks him “Goes Fleance with you?”; how well does Lady Macbeth retain the personality of the first act when she succumbs to madness in the second.

There are subtleties like this in every play, but Macbeth is ripe with them. There could never be a definitive production. With Critical Mass, there will not be a definitive review. Keep reading these pages for a raft of non-definitive ones. Enjoy.

Macbeth runs March 5-April 19, 2015 [Arden Theatre Company F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N Second Street] ardentheatre.org.

Reviews of MACBETH:

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.