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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MACBETH
at the Vivian Beaumont

HOLLOW WORDS
By DAVID COTE

  Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jennings/ Ph: T. Charles Erickson

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest villains, a murderous tyrant soaked in gore and surrounded by untold numbers of his countrymen’s corpses. Even by the brutal standards of Elizabethan-era cruelty (an age of bear-baiting and public execution, let us never forget), the Scottish regicide is a nasty piece of work. But the title character’s butchery is nothing compared to what Ethan Hawke is doing to the Bard’s language in a woefully miscast and overproduced fiasco at Lincoln Center Theater.
 
By overproduced, I mean incessant busyness in terms of scenic, sonic and light effects. But even so, you must admit, the nonstop welter of cues is a merciful distraction from some very poor acting. It’s not only Hawke (unable to square his slacker-dude shtick with the formal demands of the material) who appears overwhelmed by the verse; English import Anne-Marie Duff writhes and grimaces her way through Lady Macbeth, lithely sensual but making little impact. Brian D’Arcy James escapes mostly unscathed as incorruptible Banquo, and Daniel Sunjata’s Macduff is good for a spot of bellowing and swordplay – if little else. As the doomed King Duncan, Richard Easton gives the same hearty-duffer turn he’s delivered for years. (I suppose he’s waiting for a director to ask for something more.) The less said about Jonny Orsini’s callow schoolboy Malcolm the better.
 
Director Jack O’Brien has one interesting idea for the Scottish Play. His witches are played by men in semi-drag: Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets. These three ghoulish, sexually ambiguous wraiths are woven through the action, slipping into supporting roles, such as the wounded officer at the beginning of the play and later, the Porter. Hecate (Francesca Faridany) has an increased presence; she too flits through scenes, getting brief cameos (the Gentlewoman in the sleepwalking scene). In O’Brien’s eccentric conception, Macbeth’s act-four consultation with the weird sisters nearly devolves into a drug-fueled orgy, complete with smoking pipes, hallucinatory video and furtive kisses. It’s like he tried to fuse Macbeth’s supernatural horrors with the pastoral hijinks of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
 
All these witchy extras conjure an atmosphere of diabolical danger, but the cumulative effect robs Macbeth of moral agency, turning the tragedy into a sort of occultist Game of Thrones. But if the Thane of Cawdor is fated to murder Duncan, seize the crown and become a tyrant, then it’s hard to care about his tragic descent into bloodlust and inhumanity. The mystic aura is also unavoidable in the design. The motif for Scott Pask’s massive, shadowy set is a medieval mandala, which (a program note helpfully informs us) “might not only serve well as a magical space for acting, but also serve as a ‘safe talisman’ for anyone still slightly suspicious of the reputation of this haunting, and haunted, play.” I’m afraid the mandala failed. There’s nowhere in New York safe for this acting, but I wouldn’t blame the play for being cursed. Look to the casting instead.
 
I’m being hard on Hawke, but the fellow has done better work. His Hotspur in the 2003 Henry IV (also at the Beaumont and also directed by O’Brien) was lusty and credible. He made a raffish and well-spoken Autolycus in the Bridge Project’s The Winter’s Tale at BAM. And goodness knows Hawke is committed to the stage as a performer and director. But O’Brien simply gave the actor too much latitude to “explore” the language – or not explore it, as the case may be. Hawke swallows his words, breaks meter, jokes the poetry and tries out bizarre accents as he hacks his way through scenes with no clear take on his character, besides perhaps Macbeth as a burned-out East Village hipster.
 
At any rate, the gothic stage tableaux are ravishing, thanks to first-rate design elements: Pask’s aforementioned nightmare set, Japhy Weideman’s sepulchral lighting, Jeff Sugg’s ghostly video projections. O’Brien makes good use of the Vivian Beaumont’s deep stage for epic entrances and exits with raking lights and swirling fog. As Macbeth is killing Duncan, Lady M. frets beside a vase that holds a bunch of red flowers. As the deed is done offstage, petals start to trickle off – first singly, then in a flood, symbolizing the royal blood being spilt. That’s one nifty effect – among many – but to what end? The actors are dwarfed by spectacle.
 
We’ve had loads of outstanding Shakespeare this fall, most of it from England. I’m still glowing from Mark Rylance and Shakespeare’s Globe utterly magical Twelfth Night and Richard III. From the Donmar Warehouse, the all-female Julius Caesar was gripping and revelatory. Even Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Theatre for a New Audience, with uneven acting, was visually unforgettable. And I eagerly await Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory next summer. Here, though, are no great shakes.
 
 
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.

 


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