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April 12, 2009

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Flamboyan Theatre, New York - Directed by John Castro. April 3-19, 2009)

Macbeth-cr.jpgJulian Rozzell, Jr. as Macbeth and (L-R) Rachel Tiemann, Amelia Workman and Bryn Boice as the Weird Sisters. Photo courtesy of Pharah Jean-Philippe

The challenge to producing a play by Shakespeare is always how to make the familiar fresh, to re-imagine what has been already been re-(and re-)imagined, and Hipgnosis Theatre Company has tried to do this with its current production of "Macbeth." The company stages the piece on a fully lit playing area without any lighting effects other than lights-on/lights-off because it wants the ensemble (in the words of its press release) to "evoke the darkness of the setting (and of the plot) with their language and action, rather than with technical effects." To create what the company calls "a harsh, unforgiving and clinical atomsphere," the floor is layered in featureless white vinyl, and overhead three banks of fluorescent lights buzz away. Actors sit in view of the audience and enter and exit as needed. The approach produces what the company wants: a concentration on Shakespeare's action and text, stripped of superfluous effects. However, such a gambit requires that the actors speak the text superbly and the direction do more than move people around the space. This is where the company's reach exceeds its grasp. Julian Rozzell, who plays Macbeth, toils mightily at the language, but his gangly frame makes it difficult to believe he is "Bellona's bridegroom," and he's been directed to make every conspicuous choice in gesture and intonation suggested by the language -- his obvious emotions, thus being so obvious, are high in melodrama and short on subtlety. The other major characters also work hard but come up short: Elizabeth Mirachi portrays the tortured (and torturing) Lady Macbeth without much variation between the queen's molten ambition and icy dementia, Richard Ugino does a competent but mostly monochromatic Banquo, and Douglas Scott Streater (Malcolm) and Nick Brooks (Macduff) sport the required soldierly manliness but do so at such a high decibel level that at times, such as in IV, iii, when Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty, they compete to see who can bellow the loudest. The sound design by Demetrios Bonaros is mostly illustrative (i.e., a bell rings when a bell is called for) and does little to create a world to match the production's "clinical" concept. Krista Thomas-Scott's mish-moshed costume design uses suit-jackets with cut-off sleeves to represent breastplates and Wellingtons as stand-ins for leather boots -- its slapdash look lacks a unifying through-line. (Though Thomas-Scott's dressing the three witches in swaths of Tyvek, with gauze across their eyes, marries well the weirdness of the Weird Sisters to the company's conceit of a fully lit horror-fest.) All in all, this is just another production of a Shakespeare play -- the direction seems mostly aimed at what a director friend of mine calls "crowd control," its design elements do not match and reinforce one another, and the actors' performances do not (in the words of another Shakespeare character) come "trippingly on the tongue." In other words, nothing about this production makes the familiar words and themes fresh and memorable -- and that is the real tragedy of this otherwise energetic "Macbeth."

Michael Bettencourt

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