MACBETH (Arden): Rare emotion and rarer straightforwardness [critical mass review #5]

Note: This review is part of a new feature section on PhindieCritical 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.

Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady Macbeth with Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady Macbeth with Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth. Photo by Mark Garvin.

As the fifth in a string of critics to be writing about Arden’s production of MACBETH for Phindie, I’m faced with a troubling task: How to explain that I agree with so many of the minute observations being made by my fellows, yet that I disagree completely with their overall assessment of the performance?

I’ll stall for a moment by noting how surprised I am that the opinions of our critics have fallen into such a quorum. We all like Ian Merrill Peakes in the title role; we all take issue with poor Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady M; we like Christopher Patrick Mullen but are not too crazy about the added business for his porter; we like the aesthetics but wish the pace hadn’t run over so much of the story’s complexity. There’s a joke to be made here about great minds thinking alike, but alas, I am not the one to make it.

And yet, when all of these disparate elements came together, they equaled, in my eyes, a performance of rare emotion and even rarer straightforwardness. I agree with Critical Mass contributor number two, Ninni Saajola, that director Alex Burns’s decision to cut the second scene—when “Macbeth’s valor and brutality on the battlefield are described with moments of exceptional poetry”—caused a great deal of characterization and pure story to be lost. In the eyes of our first contributor, Chris Munden, cuts like these seem to “presuppose a familiarity with the text which may leave uninitiated audiences confused.” This is a shortcoming not just of this production but of a great many stagings of classic works. In that context, Burns’s sin is a small one, and can be overlooked when we stop to consider the simplicity of MACBETH’s elevator pitch: It’s about a guy who’s fated to attain power, does so through bloodshed, and then becomes paranoid at the (also fated) prospect of losing it. Burns takes some shortcuts (and some detours) in reprocessing Shakespeare’s story, but he trusts his audience to glean the necessary aspects of the narrative, and that’s the mark of an efficient director.

Critical Mass contributor number three, Jessica Foley, observed that the actors in Burns’s production seemed wooden, “with feet rooted to the spot [and] raising their arms as rigidly as Ken dolls.” I’m not sure I agree, but even if she’s correct I’m not sure this is a problem. Are we forgetting the most of the characters in this play are military men? Our players are straightbacked because they play characters who are trained to move only when told to. I’m not sure what Foley would prefer. Indeed, the acting only seemed to suffer when thrust into the hands of Clarke (as Lady Macbeth), whose indulgence in indicative gestures provided an unwelcome distraction during her introductory soliloquy. The majority of Burns’s actors treat the text with passion, but also with respect. They recognize that acting isn’t a symphony of phony gestures and fake emotion; it’s speaking clearly and honestly and getting the hell out of the way of the story.

My fellow critics have noted the superior quality of the light and sound designs, but no one has discussed just how pivotal these elements are to Arden’s production. Lighting designer Solomon Weisbard has lit the production largely from the sides of the stage, heightening the severity of everything we see, including the smoke machine fog. The shadows of the actors are thrown around the stage, and the combination of the stark, interrogative brightness with the surrounding darkness lends a spooky, haunting quality, like we’ve been thrust into a deep, dark cave with only a flashlight to guide us. It’s not just the witches who own the darkness here; it envelops everyone, so much so that when Mullen’s porter fancies himself the doorman of hell, we wonder if he’s only half-joking.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth with Ben Dibble as Banquo. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth with Ben Dibble as Banquo. Photo by Mark Garvin.

To this is added the relentless percussion of James Sugg’s sound design, which further emphasizes the brutality of the world of MACBETH. The witches twist and chant to its sinister rhythms, and we’re made to feel the punishing horror of the battle scenes, which have their own brand of ferocity from fight director Paul Dennhardt. Critical Mass contributor number four, Julius Ferraro, was not impressed by Burns’s bent toward “cinematic slickness” in this production. But while the performance is largely defined by its swiftness and its visuals, Burns has not disrespected the story with any of his stylistic choices. He understands that we come to the theater to be thrilled and to be moved, and his production does both.

(Regarding the costumes, however, I cannot do better than Saajola: “The costume design…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.” Brava.)

Shakespeare, at this point in history, belongs to everyone. Directors of all stripes and levels of ability have “take[n] a machete to the text,” as Chris Munden writes of Burns. We’ve seen enough gender-swapping and time-traveling that, in 2007, The Onion published an article with the headline: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Even Burns himself has trafficked in the silliness, with his all-male production of Othello at Quintessence in 2012. (You could argue that this is how the play would have been staged in Shakespeare’s time; you could also argue that it’s no longer Shakespeare’s time.) But with his new production of MACBETH, Burns offers a breath of fresh air: the set is simple, the staging is direct, the colors are vivid, the story is focused on its goal. In resisting the urge to “do something” with a perfectly good play, Burns shuts up his ego and provides an atmosphere in which the story can sing. And boy, can it ever. [Arden Theatre Company F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N Second Street] March 5-April 19, 2015;

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