The Playgoer: REVIEW: Macbeth

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

REVIEW: Macbeth

Public Theater @ Central Park
directed by Moises Kaufman, starring Liev Shreiber & Jennifer Ehle
(closes July 9)

I have my share of misgivings about Moises Kaufman's production of Macbeth. But I was taken aback by this objection of Charles Isherwood's in his review: "'Macbeth' is not really a play about war, as 'King Lear' is not a play about real estate."

Kaufman is a theatre artist who has constantly mined the overlap of the personal and political. From his devised docu-dramas "Gross Indecency" and "Laramie Project" to his direction of "I Am My Own Wife" you know he is proud to have an "agenda." (In those works that meant examining the persecution of sexual "deviancy.") So I for one was hardly surprised he would find the most political way into Macbeth. In fact, I looked forward to it!

Last time I checked, Macbeth is a warrior. The play begins and ends with battle. War is the means if not the cause of his initial advancement and his ultimate undoing. Yes, there's a lot else going on and the play can be presented as an abstract psychological study. But is not "war play" at least one of the many genres the work can be conceived as? If we can have Mafia-Macbeths and fast-food chain Macbeths (any other Scotland, PA fans out there?), then War-Macbeths can hardly be off the table. (Note that any play that extracts the characters from their tribal warfare context has to substitute a social backdrop equally violent.)

It's not necessary to cite the Public's own ballyhooing about its self-declared "war season" to appreciate the lengths Kaufman goes to within the production itself to announce its context. He presents us upon entering the Delacorte Theatre with sentries keeping watch amidst the distant soundscape of mortar shells and the muffled oratory of some generic "great leader." The apron of the stage is strewn with rubble, the marble detritus of an august civilization gone to the dogs. The witches soon enter not as central-casting hags but as female grunts, "regulars" but in nondescript fatigues and expressionist whiteface. (Kaufman has repeatedly over his short career showed himself to be nothing if not a Brechtian.) They surround a white-haired man seated center stage, consult each other, nod in assent, and crown him. He is Duncan, of course, and they the "kingmakers." The payoff for this moment comes at the end when they similarly bless Malcolm and, in a neat interpolation, repeat the play's opening lines--"When shall we three meet again?" Eternal recurrence? Setting us up for the sequel? (McB II?) I took it more as bluntly cynical: power corrupts, and wartime power corrupts absolutely. (To say nothing of "war powers.") It'll happen to Malcom just as it did to Macbeth. And who said Duncan was so great either.

Compelling impulses. Especially in a current Shakespearean landscape so rife with surface concepts but short on cogent interpretation. So whatever else may be wrong with this "Macbeth", it ain't the war.

Note I have been referring to this as the Moises Kaufman "Macbeth", not the Liev Schreiber "Macbeth," even though that's how you've likely most heard of it. My intent is not to slight Schreiber, whom I admire, but to stress this is a director's not an actor's production. Indeed it takes Schreiber the whole first act to show some individuality, so concerned is he with posing as the decent man about to be corrupted, which Kaufman's schema stipulates. Unfortunately playing good guys is not this actor's strong suit. (Would you rather see him as Ricky Roma or his wooden Gregory Peck homage in "The Omen"?) The first act of this staging, then, is a bit too buttoned up after the initial promise of bloody war. Entertaining his superiors at home, Macbeth dons a tux and plays Victrola dance tunes for his guests. Schreiber is so polished and collected in his soliloquies you don't feel the naked drive of the character; instead, doubt and remorse predominate with Macbeth breaking down in tears after killing Duncan. It all was a bit too "tasteful" for me.

Finally, Liev lights up toward the end. (This is one of the few Macbeths--and few "Macbeths"--that got better in the second half.) His alpha-male finally breaks out and he delivers a tangibly brutish and choleric Shakespearean manic-depressive villain. In his final scenes his stumbling mighty frame suggests a bully literally drunk from his own power. His interactions with his subordinates are physically menacing and, even better, bitingly sardonic. I give Kaufman and Schreiber credit for finding an arc and "journey" for the character. Too bad it began in such a boring place.

What to say about Jennifer Ehle's Lady M? There's certainly mileage to be gotten out of making the character glamorous. (Not everyone has to emulate the memorably embittered hausfrau of Judi Dench.) But there's a big difference between charming or seductive...and just pretty. Kaufman and costumer Michael Krass clearly fight the "butch" legacy by going all femme on Ehle, to the max. Like, introducing her in a pink evening gown. These trappings shouldn't necessarily sap the character's power. But Ehle seems just too...comfortable. Her flat American accent (so as not to out-class the Yank, Schreiber?) grates. Perhaps the banality of evil was intended? What we get from her instead is just another desperate housewife.

Lady M's fading from the scene is another reason the production picks up in the second act. Derek McLane and David Lander's sets and lighting pull of a nice coup with the Central Park trees popping up as Birnam Wood and Rick Sordelet's stylized fights give us something different from the usual clanging and hacking. Most revisionist is Kaufman's rendering of Malcolm as proto-fascist, replete with jackboots and a 1930s standing microphone as he addresses his troops.

But even the political statement falls short of potent contemporary analogy. Kaufman wants the man-made horror of war without losing or downplaying the spooky supernaturalism of the witches and their spells, and the two detract from one another. Yes, he opts to leave Banquo's ghost to our (and Macbeth's) imagination. But the Act III "witches cauldron" scene is as hokey as they come.

Isherwood is wrong if he thinks the Scottish play can't also be a war play. But he's right if he means it can't be both contemporary real-world polemic and Halloween ghoolery at the same time.

PS. For the record, I only had to wait two hours on line for this in previews, down at the Public. I don't know what the waits were like after opening. Still, the show was easily worth at least $10-15. And yet not worth giving up my lunch for!


June said...

Well said! I agree completely. Liev Schreiber's verse-speaking was lovely (and on the night I saw it, at least, Jennifer Ehle's was rather stumbling), but there was very little fire in him, and because there was absolutely none in her, I wasn't persuaded that she had kindled his.

Anonymous said...

Haven't finished reading your review yet, but I had to pipe in and say, Here's another Scotland PA fan!