With Nigel Gore — an actor who comes to Shakespeare with a lot of authority and a willingness to take all kinds of risks on stage — playing the lead, and advance publicity that alluded to guns, smoke, Afghanistan and gruesome death scenes, I was expecting a thrilling Macbeth from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and I approached the evening with a mix of excited curiosity and trepidation (I'm not good with blood). What I encountered, however, was a production that occasionally hit the heights but was respect-worthy rather than revelatory. The house was full and the audience appreciative, but no one appeared the least bit somber or shaken as they streamed out, chatting and laughing, at the end.
A couple of the problems lie in the casting. Director Jane Page pairs Gore's idiosyncratic and naturalistic Macbeth with a very theatrical Lady Macbeth, Liza de Weerd, and while he frequently surprises, she gives almost every line the exact reading you'd expect. Shakespeare doesn't provide much of a clue about why this woman is the scheming hellcat she is. Some interpreters surmise a lost child, adding resonance to her famous response when Macbeth hesitates at the idea of killing the king: "I have given suck, and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me/I would while it was smiling in my face/Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you/Have done to this." But there's no hint of an emotional undercurrent in de Weerd's performance, nothing to presage her descent into madness.
Gore is a strong Macbeth, who nonetheless hovers periodically on the diaphragm-quivering edge of comedy. He makes such famous speeches as "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" new again, reminding us of how conceptually daring they are. His handling of "Is this a dagger that I see before me..." is riveting, and later, as he stares at his own blood-thickened hands, you sense an incipient madness that presages his wife's. But why does he have to go through a long scene in a robe with no fastening in front, so that he has to hold it together through impassioned speech after impassioned speech?
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 10, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
Nathan Stith's unexpectedly urbane Theseus worked well in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he is cast against type again here as Macduff, and this time it doesn't work. Macduff should be a fighter and the play's moral center; the final battle with Macbeth is a cataclysmic struggle between good and evil. Watching Stith and Gore go at it, however, I kept remembering a production I'd seen staged for high-school kids that starred a very burly Macbeth: "Turn hellhound, turn and look upon thy death," declaimed Macduff, and then a voice rose clear and strong from the audience: "Ha! Macbeth'll beat the shit out of him!"
The Afghanistan setting contributes some interest and nuance — as when Lady Macbeth covers her face at the entrance of Duncan and his men but shows no such reticence once she's become queen. I got distracted when Duncan's sons fled to Russia, though, and also when Russian soldiers eventually appeared; the device took the action away from a place that felt timeless and brought it into recent history. Who were Duncans in this scheme — Marxists? Mujahideen? The important scene in which Malcolm and Macduff confer and Macduff learns of the death of his family takes place in the presence of two silent Russian women in suits, one of whom looks like a gym teacher with a clipboard. I spent so many minutes trying to figure out why these women were there that I lost track of the dialogue.
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Still, there's strong acting from the usual suspects: Sam Gregory, Lawrence Hecht, Steven Cole Hughes and Sean Scrutchins. The first act is cleaner and more powerful than the second, probably because all of these Colorado Shakespeare Festival plays get a very short rehearsal period. The apparition of a bloody babe that confronts Macbeth is handled with originality. And the deaths of Lady Macduff and her children are staged with a fierceness that I'd like to have seen propel the entire production. The entire season, in fact, if the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is to truly reinvent itself this year.