MACBETH (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival): A Minimalist Vision

Deanna Gibson plays one of three witches in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s MACBETH (Photo credit: Lee A. Butz)

Deanna Gibson plays one of three witches in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s MACBETH (Photo credit: Lee A. Butz)

Director Patrick Mulcahy takes a modernist approach to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of MACBETH, with a 20th-century minimalist aesthetic that compels the audience to focus on the emotions and actions of the characters and the power of the playwright’s language. It’s stark and intense, and also, at times, oddly anachronistic and comical, performed in attire that suggests a peculiar mash-up of wartime Berlin and dance club chic, military and punk. 

The mostly bare-stage production (scenic design by Bob Phillips), with rows of equally spaced vertical strips of chain link fencing, evocative fog effects, industrial noise and echoes (sound by Matthew Given), and dramatic spot-lighting that casts ominous shadows on the theater’s white side walls (lighting by Thom Weaver), induces a disturbing mood of impending doom. With but a few sparse props in the encompassing darkness of the black stage, and a palette largely limited to the symbolic hues of black and white, gleaming silver, and blood red, the lead actors, more than ever, must be commanding in their stage presence, and in command of Shakespeare’s weighty words and themes. They are.

Ian Bedford (Macbeth), Susan Riley Stevens (Lady Macbeth), Anthony Lawton (Banquo), and Perry Ojeda (Macduff) turn in especially compelling and nuanced performances. Bedford eloquently captures all the conflicting emotions of Macbeth, whose tyrannical ambition and atrocities cause him to suffer the psychological consequences of his violent acts, and then to reflect in utter despair on “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” As his power-hungry wife, Stevens is a convincing balance of ruthless and seductive (in stunning costumes by Lisa Zinni), driven mad by her belated conscience and ultimately suicidal in her guilt. Lawton’s Banquo is appropriately honorable and upright, then terrifying as his ghost, who haunts Macbeth for his murder. And Perry Ojeda brings believable awareness, empathy, and vengefulness to Macduff, who at last defeats the ill-fated ruler in retribution for the slaughter of his innocent wife and children.

In contrast to Shakespeare’s “filthy hags” with “choppy fingers,” “skinny lips,” and “beards”–“So wither’d and so wild in their attire/That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth/And yet are on’t” (Act I, scene iii)–the PSF’s prophetic “weird sister” witches (Deanna Gibson, Eleanor Handley, and Suzanne O’Donnell) are more laughably sexualized than horrifying or unearthly, in 1970s-style disco/streetwalker wear of dark glasses, red wigs, and skin-tight black dresses with revealing slits and cut-outs. The clever on-stage metamorphoses of some of the minor supporting characters into the witches (including the drunken porter at Macbeth’s castle) also elicited more giggles than gasps from the opening-night audience, providing comic relief amidst the horrors of the tragedy. But of course in MACBETH, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” and nothing is as it seems. [Main Stage, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA] July 17-August 3, 2014. www.pashakespeare.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.