opening night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
We were so looking forward to seeing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival redeem themselves after their 2002 butchery where they “adapted” Macbeth to make Lady Macbeth warm and cuddly and misunderstood. We went home thoroughly disappointed.
Last night’s production left Shakespeare’s words intact but unsexed it emotionally and deposited its storyline in disconnected speeches all across the stage. This Macbeth is a bombastic mess badly conceived and faithfully driven into the ground by the talented acting staff.
Well, mostly talented acting staff. Peter Macon as Macbeth has now ruined two leading roles with flat declaiming instead of purposeful acting. As Othello in 2008, Macon made Shakespeare sound impenetrable and he showcases that ability again here. Also as in Othello, Macon’s Macbeth has zero chemistry with his wife. The audience has no clue about how she affects him or why. None.
Macon’s reappearance in Ashland is a mystery to me. Twice now I’ve seen him go through lines with as much expression as the GPS lady telling you where to turn. He reads his speeches so stiffly, you can visualize the line breaks in the script he memorized. He’s loud and you can hear the words, but the meaning is lost in the mechanical recitation. Moreover, Macon shows up for Macbeth physically unprepared: this warrior has shirtless scenes that reveal too much… about 20 pounds too much. Why didn’t he buff up or slim down for this 9-month on-stage gig?
Oddly, in street clothes around Ashland, Macon looks young, hip, and studly. His weight fits his body, and he is cool. On stage he’s 20 years older, and his joints and personality are terribly stiffened.
A seat mate read that director Gale Edwards’ concept was to let Shakespeare’s words carry the story. Fine, but some acting would have helped. Getting out of the way of the author, especially Shakespeare, is often effective. But, this Macbeth drifted between flat high school struggles with the verse to simply inappropriate over-the-top, giggle-producing melodrama as emotional scenes were read tonelessly like the script of a bad horror film.
Who knew that Macbeth’s witches were so farcically funny? The Weird Sisters are caricatures: they’re over-produced stereotypes who amuse and fail to frighten. I was sure that their ring-around-the-cauldron dance was going to end with a pratfall. When the witches summon Gollum-meets-ET creatures from their bubbly fire, the moment was pure Mel Brooks.
Except, the humor wasn’t intentional. At least not meant by Shakespeare. The audience’s tentative laughter was from discomfort and not from delight.
But, it’s unfair to pick on just the actors in this production. All crafts contributed to the dismal results.
The set was weirder than the sisters. I liked the tangled carpet of dark body parts that oozed into the audience at the front. But, mostly the scenery was a juvenile collage of backdrops and props. I was particularly distracted by a steep-angled, pirates’-plank-like stairway thing in the back which was used repeatedly for meaningful exits and entries. At the time I thought “Titanic” because of its ship’s bow quality, but maybe it’s more of a shipwreck for its own over-much symbolism.
And, what’s with the costumes? I suppose the designer, Murrell Horton, was only complementing the clouded vision of Director Edwards. But, still. The men wore randomly mismatched cartoon uniforms. They were cheesy with dime-store ribbons and grade-school medallions. They came from no particular time period, unless it was the Cheap Epoch. Lady Macbeth had one worthy, evil-vixen dress. But later she’s made to wear an outfit made from Gone with the Wind curtain rejects.
Finally, there were a few performances that were out of step with the evening: they worked.
Kevin Kenerly’s Macduff was purposeful, emotional, and a consistent character on stage. Kenerly talked Shakespeare instead of speechifying it. You understood the man behind the words. He was magnificent.
Rex Young as Banquo was also excellent. His speeches were clear and powerful, and Young held up well as a bloody ghost when lesser talents would have created a Rocky Horror moment. There’s one disconcerting shirtless scene for Young, too, but his body manages to be unremarkable in its moment of unneeded revelation.
Josiah Phillips as the Porter and the Doctor also managed flawless and meaningful delivery of his bit parts.
Unfortunately the other actors — hugely talented and exquisite in other productions — give in to Director Edwards’ words-only, be-a-Greek-chorus instructions. Robin Goodrin Nordli as Lady Macbeth was particularly frustrating because she flashes brilliance in many early scenes only to devolve too frequently into the toneless mode.
The best thing about this Macbeth is that it is unadulterated Shakespeare. The worst thing is that it is mostly un-acted Shakespeare.