A quick inventory of the Shakespearean actor's stock-in-trade includes qualities such as an expressive voice and body, a fertile imagination, and a devotion to spiritual truth tempered by a carnival barker's sense of showmanship.
But when it comes to portraying any of the four major Shakespearean tragic roles (Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth), an actor must rely on more than just basic training: He must somehow convey the character's tragic essence (referred to by some as a "tragic flaw"), which is actually nothing more than an overriding personality trait that ultimately leads to the self-destruction of an otherwise laudable human being.
Even though Macbeth is imbued with the melodramatic undercurrents of good and evil--the Bard's patron at the time, King James I, had a keen interest in the Bible (yes, that King James) and also happened to be of Scottish descent--this play remains very much a study in tragic behavior. In fact, the action begins with a series of crucial, well-considered choices on the part of Macbeth that set him on an irrevocable collision course with the Scottish clans, Lady Macbeth, the powers of wickedness, and, of course, God. Under the imaginative direction of Anthony Powell, the Denver Center Theatre Company's rousing version of the play proves to be more melodramatic than it is tragic. Nevertheless, Powell and company provide a vastly entertaining, often moving evening of theater.
Powell has chosen to set the play in the eleventh century during the actual historical period when Duncan (William Whitehead) and Macbeth (John Hutton) reigned as Scottish monarchs. The simple set by Andrew V. Yelusich, who also designed the costumes, consists of a single circular wooden platform that's slightly tilted toward the audience. Though it's hard to discern at first glance, a large circle within this sphere of rough-hewn planks traces a path of blood that many of the characters will tread before, during and after the play's many murder scenes. As the action progresses (and Macbeth's obsession with power claims a host of innocent victims), this trail of tears and human suffering becomes more visible to us. When combined with eerie sound effects and ubiquitous shafts of red light that occasionally peek through several cracks in the stage floor (lighting design by Don Darnutzer), it creates an almost otherworldly setting for Shakespeare's examination of unbridled ambition.
The primeval setting is also ideal for Powell's spiritually inclined approach. The director has highlighted the drama's many religious passages and changed the character of the doctor to that of a Holy Father (William Denis), who tells Macbeth that his pastoral skills can do nothing for Lady Macbeth (Annette Helde), who instead must "minister unto" herself. There's also an early reference to Golgotha (the historical site where Christ was crucified) as well as moments throughout the drama reminiscent of religious rituals, such as when a dagger is sanctified over a cauldron of bubbling, decidedly unholy water (in much the same manner as a paschal candle would be dipped into holy water during a celebration of Easter). Even the name of Macbeth's servant, Seyton (Bruce Turk), who's famous for uttering the line "The Queen, my lord, is dead," is pronounced "Satan" as opposed to the oft-employed "See-ton." And Powell's decision to emphasize the many references to Christianity results in an illuminating production that pits the evil of insurrection against the divine right of kings.
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The director's handling of the play's central character, however, is another matter. For even though Hutton and Helde make an appealing couple, there isn't much magnetism between them. Nor is there much of a sense in Hutton's portrayal of the elements within Macbeth's makeup that precipitate his tragic downfall. In fact, these Macbeths are the most likable pair of social climbers you're ever likely to see. Not only would you be happy to extend a dinner invitation to them, but you wouldn't even consider hiding the cutlery before they arrived. This despite the fact that Macbeth talks early in the drama about his "heart's black desires." What we see in Hutton's Act One portrayal is a man largely swept along by the undertow of evil forces. And the play ceases to be a tragedy when its central character doesn't bear a convincing responsibility for his own actions.
As the play progresses, we witness a power struggle between Macbeth and his foes, a contest that prompted some opening-night audience members to applaud when the hellhound finally received his comeuppance at play's end. To Hutton's credit, his portrayal gains momentum as the evening progresses (as does Helde's). Their more famous episodes in the second half of the drama (the Lady's sleepwalking scene and Macbeth's "Tomorrow" speech) are well-conceived. And more than a few audience members gasped in horror when Macduff's children were savagely slaughtered in a riveting scene orchestrated by Powell and fight director J. Allen Suddeth.
A fine supporting cast led by Randy Moore, Bruce Turk and Stephanie Cozart as a splendid team of witches also contributes much to Powell's supernal production. Near the end of the play, these three "weird sisters" kneel over the fallen body of Macbeth in a hellish configuration that evokes the removal of Christ's body from the cross. All that's needed to complete the poignant image is the heart of darkness that's responsible for the carnage we've just witnessed. Instead, we're reminded during the haunting moment that this production of Macbeth remains very much an unfinished portrait of a richly conceived character.
Macbeth, through April 25 at the Stage Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.