With Macbeth, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival company has accomplished something close to impossible: It has enabled us to see one of the great tragedies afresh.
You attend a Shakespeare play with certain expectations. There are scenes that move you every time you see them, such as Shylock leaving the courtroom after his defeat, Cleopatra mourning for Antony, Henry V urging his exhausted soldiers into battle; others that must be endured because they move the plot along (the financial negotiations in Taming of the Shrew, the exposition in the history plays); difficult scenes that can still be illumined by the right actor or director; and some low comedy stuff that must have been much funnier in Shakespeare's time than it is today. It's rare for all of these moments to coalesce into a new vision.
Director Sean Ryan Kelley has cast a predominantly black Macbeth, and -- more important -- reinterpreted the play as a kind of tribal storytelling ritual. The cast assembles to describe the action, accompanied by drums that excite the heartbeat, comment on the action, slow it or drive it forward, and sometimes provide moments of silence. (Much of the production's impact, in fact, stems from the eloquent drumming of Ghanian brothers Maputo and Mawuenyega Mensah.) The tribal setting allows for the use of masks, dancing and other ritualized and distancing devices, so that the focus becomes less on the psychological complexities of the principals than on the life of the community. A lot of directors try to jazz Shakespeare up by changing the plays' locations, adding new elements or inserting contemporary social or political dimensions, but Kelley's concept reimagines the play rather than being superimposed on it and doesn't twist the words, change them or make them incomprehensible. (I've always wondered at productions that do this. Isn't the language the primary reason we're still watching Shakespeare in the 21st century? If you're going to toss it, why not just write a new script?)
The result is like placing a transparency over a map: The contours remain the same, but different elements are highlighted -- mountains or bodies of water, forests or animal habitats. Kelley's interpretation heightens Macbeth's magic, making the witches seem a reasonable manifestation of their time and place. In fact, the portrayal of the witches by Adam B. Hose, John M. Jurcheck and Nettie Mae Kraft is one of the most successful things in the production. We never see their faces, only their menacing and ambivalent figures and a gaping mouth through one of the masks. When Lady Macbeth calls on the forces of evil to enter her body, the witches move silently into place above her. In this world, the dead mingle freely with the living, because the villagers, having played out their parts, return to observe the rest of the action. So murdered Duncan watches calmly at the banquet as the ghost of another victim, Banquo, torments Macbeth. Most telling, the actors who play the doctor and lady-in-waiting who attend a Lady Macbeth driven mad with guilt are the same ones who played Duncan and the slaughtered Lady Macduff.
All of the murders are ritualized. This works well for the killing of Duncan, and also of Banquo, but the synchronized grunt-screams of Lady Macduff and her children under the knife strokes are funny rather than upsetting. There's no problem disposing of corpses in this Macbeth. Dead people just get up and lurch away, zombie-like -- another fascinating touch.
This is not to say that the production is without flaws. Many of Gregory J. Horton's costumes are stunning, particularly those of the witches and the principals, but the sandals and skirt/kilts worn by the supernumeraries often look clunky and out of place. The movement, choreographed by Onye Ozuzu, works brilliantly in spots -- again, the witches are a highlight -- but sometimes the villagers' excited stomping looks a little silly. And while I liked the murderers' costumes, their slithery, off-kilter movements didn't quite work. Some of the speech was mushy, too, making "ague," for example, sound like "egg."
It's rare for a set to make a difference, but this one -- along with the drumming -- is one of the primary reasons for the production's success. Designed by Stancil Campbell, it's a sort of thicket of bamboo stems, shadowy, evocative and flexible, allowing for several playing levels and lit by live torches. It's a little reminiscent of the unending forest in Kurasawa's masterful interpretation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, which is also evoked by this production's coldly sinister deployment of magic and depersonalization of evil.
Kyle Haden is an interesting and authoritative Macbeth; he manages to fully reinvent the role. Some things are lost in the process, however. During the great scene in which Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to commit murder, Haden seems already to have made up his mind, and he's oddly unsurprised by her bloodthirstiness. There's not a lot of juice to "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," either. Candace Taylor has an imposing presence and does well with the language; her "I have given suck" speech is chilling. David MacInnis gives us a good, solid Macduff; Alphonse Keasley is a dignified and affable Duncan; and Tony Molina is an appealing Banquo. James E.L. Esely does a good turn as the drunken porter, the play's one comic role.
In an interview, one of the actors commented that this is a hopeful rather than despairing Macbeth, because when evil swells to a certain point, the community unites to drive it out (though the production also suggests that evil can never be eradicated). This is a genuinely interesting approach, and it's a real accomplishment to bring this level of vitality, surprise and excitement to one of Shakespeare's most-performed works.
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