Dorothy Marshall Englis’ eclectic costumes enhance the mood, from a vaguely Celtic look to period warrior garb mixed with modern touches to early 20th century uniforms on the English soldiers. There are also costume tricks of a sort. For example, when the ill-fated King Duncan (a commanding Jerry Vogel) enters, he wears a camel hair coat slung around his shoulders; when his son Malcolm (Ben Nordstrom) finally bows to the will of the Scottish people and returns with 10,000 Brits to avenge his father and seize his birthright from the usurper Macbeth (Timothy D. Stickney), he wears the coat the same way. Earlier, Malcolm and his brother, Donalbain, (Greg Fink) are dressed exactly alike as they flee Macbeth’s “hospitality” after their father’s murder. Red is everywhere, either as a costume color (the Macbeths while holding court) or as an undershirt or even neck scarf. We know there will be blood.
Director Paul Mason Barnes (aided by Brian A. Peters and Shaun Sheley as the fight directors) seems not to have blocked this show, as much as choreographed it. The witches are especially weird here, as we have come to expect them to be women, but only one is, Shanara Gabrielle. The other two are Michael Keytoun and David Graham Jones. All play multiple parts, as well (as does much of the rest of the cast). They are eerily dressed in ashy gray and are lighted in such a way that they look dead. Could they be ghosts? Is Macbeth hallucinating? They are also a very loud bunch—if you don’t hear the prophecies, then you’re probably not in the building. Their stylized movements reminded me of the Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
Some of the performances are excellent and all are at least adequate. The standouts include Caris Vujec as the most gripping Lady Macbeth I’ve seen; Jason Cannon as the warrior Banquo, who also shows a tender side with his son, Fleance (Kyle Acheson); Christopher Hickey as a stalwart Ross; and Michael James Reed in the difficult role of Macduff. Ben Nordstrom is a suitably callow Malcolm, and Nordstrom makes Malcolm’s fears palpable, until the young man “screws his courage to the sticking place,” a line which has nothing to do with him, by the way, but it applies. Stickney’s Macbeth is good, but there were some soft spots in his performance opening night, at least in the beginning with some slow line pick-ups (he wasn’t the only one). Most of that evened out as the show went on. Barnes uses a lot of local actors, as he did in Saint Joan, and that’s always good to see.
The show opens with everyone on or around the stage introducing themselves and their various characters. That was fun to watch, but it goes so fast and there are so many of them, it doesn’t help too much. The one contemporary touch I just hated was hearing the ubiquitous sports cheer when Macbeth gets promoted for killing the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. He is conferred with that title by Duncan (before he kills the King, of course) and the company yells “Caw-Dor! Caw-Dor!” repeatedly. And they do it twice.
Banquo has a terrific stage death. He gets his throat cut and the result is not some little girly ribbon of blood—it looks like it’s really slit. The famous dinner party scene where Banquo’s ghost sends Macbeth into fits is staged so beautifully that the audience can’t see Banquo until the crowd around him parts. It really does look like magic. When Macbeth emerges from the now-late Duncan’s room, his hands and forearms are dripping with blood (the actors playing soldiers here are called upon to mop up several times), and when Lady Macbeth returns from the bed check to make sure everyone is dispatched, her hands are bloody, also. This, as most know, causes her some post-traumatic stress disorder later on. The only bloodless murders are those of Lady Macduff (Nancy Bell, also miscast as a male character, Angus) and her five children. I can see why the choice was made to tone down the graphic violence, but it wasn’t in keeping with the general atmosphere of an Jacobean slasher, and some of the audience even laughed during it.
The battle to the death between Macbeth and Macduff causes the world to open up and the two of them to descend into hell; of course, only one comes back. The stage literally splits and the two fall into the bright red pit to finish the fight. As always, in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the mantle passes to the right person and order is restored. This isn’t your father’s Macbeth, and I do recommend it, but something bothered me as I was watching. I’ve decided that the show’s one real weakness is pacing. The Scottish play is Shakespeare’s shortest top shelf tragedy, but this production still seemed long. Perhaps the effects, stunning as they are, just slow things down too much. Also, there are a few scenes that are especially talky, and during them, the show becomes tedious.
But then something else happens where there’s “strutting and fretting,” and the letting of more buckets of blood. The play Macbeth speaks to issues of power and greed; here, power does corrupt. At first, Lady Macbeth is the more ruthless of the two. When she hears the prophecy, she is all for killing anyone in their way to the top jobs. She taunts and bullies her husband until he goes along with her. Macbeth isn’t as sure as she, but once he does the first murder, he becomes paranoid himself, though not as noticeably as his sleepwalking wife. A telling scene happens when he agonizes that he has no heir to the kingship and Banquo’s progeny come out of the future with mirrors to show how long they will occupy the throne, and not incidentally, this is the line from which King James I sprang. Shakespeare wrote the play in his Sovereign’s honor, but neglected to notice that His Majesty hated swordplay. Therefore, Macbeth wasn’t performed for five years after its premiere.
The program contains a lot of background information, and you should read it if you go. Ideally, if you never have, you should also take a look at Macbeth too. But even if you don’t do those things, you should still enjoy the spectacle right through to the curtain call, as carefully designed as the rest of this significant production.
Macbeth is at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 6. You may call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT