There's so much blood. Physically and thematically, Shakespeare's Macbeth is steeped in thick, sticky, red blood. Arguably, it's not the Bard's most disturbing play (Titus Andronicus takes the cake on that one because its cake is made of people), but it ranks among the top five. At its foundation, like so many of Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth, now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre, is about a thirst for power. Director Calder Johnson's adaption is original without being distractingly avant-garde and, with only a few exceptions, the cast masters the complicated language and themes.
Lord Macbeth is already riding pretty high in 11th century Scottish society. He's a wealthy general with a castle, a hot wife and the respect of his peers. He's content with everything he has until he encounters three witches who prophesize a powerful future for him: He will be made thane of Cawdor and eventually become Scotland's new king. He ignores the prediction at first, but when his wife catches wind of it and the first half of the prophecy comes to fruition, he hops on the first train to Crazy Town and slaughters anyone who gets in his way (kings, friends, the chidren of friends). But, you know what they say: If you give Shakespeare a prophecy, he's going to want a glass of irony. Lord and Lady Macbeth's murderous spree ends in their own tragic deaths, to the delight of the three witches and the newly crowned King Malcolm.
Staging Shakespeare is a challenge, particularly a play as well known as this one. The plays are more than 400 years old, so generally the audience isn't there to be surprised. The director's choices and the actors' skills are the primary focus of the audience's attention.
Johnson keeps Macbeth in its original setting, as opposed to adapting it to a different era like so many directors. There's a primal, animalistic quality to the play that is lost when you transplant the story and characters; Johnson instead emphasizes these qualities with furred costumes and natural settings. He embraces the dirtiness of the century and lets it do the work for him. Smart move. Johnson also wisely uses the confined and intimate space of NCRT's theater with creative staging choices. Rather than have the three witches (Alissa Barthel, Megan Johnson and Greta Stockwell) enter and exit as the play progressed, he leaves them on the outskirts of the stage. Crouched and hunched, the witches watch the action from the edge of the wings, reveling in their own handiwork. Their presence adds a refreshing break to the fourth wall without being distracting or gimmicky. Johnson uses them like a Greek chorus and a rhythm section. Two of the three witches are armed with instruments, a drum and a didgeridoo. Generally, my stance on didgeridoos is didgeri-don't, but this case wins approval. In moments of rising tension or during scenes of armed combat, the instruments literally set the rhythm. It's not only crafty, but it's also a clever way to make sure the actors maintain the proper pacing. Again, smart move.
Iambic pentameter is a beast. There's nothing natural about speaking it, and it certainly doesn't land on the ears in a recognizable way. It falls on the actor to both interpret what they are saying and convey that interpretation to the audience. Beyond this, the actor has to maintain a sense of verisimilitude that is inherently alien to the text itself. Any production can get away with one or two cast members who haven't completely mastered the task, but it's absolutely vital that the leads have a fluent relationship with the language. If you're not dreaming in pentameter by the time the curtain rises, then it doesn't bode well for the production as a whole.
The leads in this production, Sam Greenspan as Macbeth and Jo Kuzelka as Lady Macbeth, bring the perfect intensity, nailing the necessary cadence and inflection. Their performances, though, should not be reduced to their skill with the language. The actors have a chemistry that is perfectly disturbing and enticing. They love each other completely and passionately, but Lady Macbeth loves power more. Greenspan and Kuzelka capture that morbid Morticia-and-Gomez romance without it becoming melodramatic or comic. Neither character slowly ascends into madness; they throw themselves at insanity and hope they stick. As actors, Greenspan and Kuzelka go from zero to 60 in one second and then stop on a dime. Both are up to the challenge.
Shakespeare doesn't do drama — he does blood-drenched tragedy. His plays are not productions for the half-hearted, nor are they a matter of "go big or go home." They require an oxymoronic, strong-handed finesse that not all theatrical companies possess. Congrats to Johnson, NCRT and the cast for mounting a Shakespearean production of this quality.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. It takes two to tango, foxtrot and waltz in this play about a dance teacher and private student who butt heads before finding a rhythm. At Ferndale Repertory Theatre Jan. 29 through Feb. 15. 786-5483.