This production of Macbeth, the first directorial effort by actor and fight choreographer Geoffrey Kent, promised to bring new life to Shakespeare's tragedy by setting it in America's frontier West — not the West of national myth, enshrined in John Wayne movies, but the grimmer and more violent terrain of HBO's Deadwood. Unhappily, it doesn't work. A man seated to my right laughed his way quietly through the evening, which is not the reaction you want when you're staging a tragedy — and I couldn't even bring myself to glare at him, because I was trying not to laugh myself.
Macbeth is the third Shakespeare production I've seen set in the Old West. Many years ago, the Denver Center Theatre Company mounted a Westernized Kiss Me Kate that really did bring a refreshing perspective to the play: You could see why Kate was such a tough bitch, and how hard it was for Petruchio to deal with her. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years back wasn't as well-executed, but I remember the frontier ambience as somewhat appealing. Although transplanting Shakespeare to the West may work better for comedy, I can imagine it working for Macbeth, too. From what we know, eleventh-century Scotland was a violent and lawless place, a place where the dirty, drunken louts and desperate whores of our own frontier days would fit right in.
But while the old West might work as a kind of background or suggestion, Kent's vision is very literal and is set specifically in Colorado. In his version of the text, castles become ranches, swords become bowie knives and pistols. "Macduff is fled to Durango," goes one memorable line.
Presented by Listen Productions through November 17, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 720-290-1104 or www.cowboymacbeth.org
In Shakespeare's universe, the king stands in the same relationship to his country as God does to the world. His frailties or strengths, kindnesses or cruelties, resonate in the lives of his people, and a sick monarchy — one inhabited by a usurper or someone morally unfit — on some profound level unbalances the universe. When a tyrant is overthrown at the end of one of Shakespeare's plays, it's as if the universe has righted itself. But given the setting, this Macbeth can scheme only to become sheriff, which drains all the mystery and majesty from the play. In a famous speech, Lady Macbeth prepares to urge her husband to commit murder — but it's for "the golden badge" rather than the crown. Even more giggle-inducing is the witches' solemn prohecy to Banquo: "Thou shalt get sheriffs, but not be one."
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The hyper-realistic set doesn't help, either, though it's well designed by Tina Anderson. There's a reason for the abstractness and fluidity with which most designers approach Shakespeare; the action takes place in many different locations, moving swiftly from one to another. In this Macbeth, everything occurs in the same bar room, except for a couple of scenes staged on a little strip of dirt at the front. People drink, rampage, plot, fight and kill in this bar. The Macbeths live here, and so do the Macduffs — that is, when the witches aren't haunting the room or it isn't the site of an epic battle. I had to stifle a grin (and the man on my right didn't bother stifling anything) when, moments after a row of enemy soldiers appeared on the upstairs balcony, Macbeth raced to one of the lower doors and feverishly nailed a piece of wood across it to keep them out.
Many of Denver's most respected actors are in this production, including William Hahn as Macbeth. Hahn is one of the more interesting actors around, and his portrayals of evil are unforgettable. He has other colors, too, as he showed some years ago in a deeply moving performance as a gay concentration-camp prisoner in Bent. His voice is low and insinuating rather than robust, and he doesn't come across as a warrior, but I imagined he'd give us an indelible portrait nonetheless, revealing both the character's ruthlessness and his moments of heartsick guilt. But stuck in this busy, drinking, romping, stomping production, with its plethora of (admittedly expertly staged) fight scenes, Hahn doesn't stand a chance. There's no room for the mesmerizing stillness and understatement that he usually brings to his work, and he just seems out of his element.
Kent has provided a subtext to the Macbeths' villainy: Apparently they've either lost a child or been unable to conceive one. It's not a bad idea, but the tiny cowboy boot meant to represent the absent infant is. Surely no one — not even in the roughest, toughest towns of the old West — would jam a baby's tender foot into this hard, heeled, enameled thing. As Lady Macbeth, Karen Slack has power when she holds herself back, but tends to give in to her hammiest and most sentimental impulses when she doesn't.
Banquo has been turned into a woman and is given a shrill, unmoored portrayal by the usually admirable GerRee Hinshaw. Trina Magness escapes with honor as a sinuously frightening First Witch. Tyee Tilghman has his moments as Malcolm, as does Josh Robinson as Macduff. The scene in which Macduff learns of the murder of his wife and children is the only genuinely moving passage of the evening. It takes several moments before the full realization hits him. "All my pretty ones?" he says at last. "Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/At one fell swoop?" What a tin-eared shame to replace that "dam" with "Maw."