Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
As we left Academy Hall after seeing the Bakerloo Theatre Project’s current production of Macbeth, my companion said to me: “I was amazed by how much I didn’t miss what wasn’t there!”
What she was referring to was the genius director William Addis, his cast and his creative team have employed to turn Peter Brook’s proverbial Empty Space into a place alive with people, places, sights, and sounds. On the bare floor of RPI’s Academy Hall auditorium Bakerloo has created a world of sound and fury signifying a great many things, most of them as barbarous and raw as those first millennium days in Scotland undoubtedly were.
Actually, there was more constructed set here than I have seen in a Bakerloo production (Geoffrey Waltz is credited with Set Coordination), but it was structure to build environment, not to create anything recognizably realistic. Much draping defined the performance and audience space quite tightly, and made the entrance from the lobby into the auditorium tunnel-like. Three white flats formed both backdrop and, ingeniously, a surface through which faces and hands emerged to deliver the Weird Sisters’ final prophecies for Macbeth. Otherwise there were three black cubes and some hand-held spotlights. The rest was actors, words, lights, and costumes (more on all of that later).
The playing space is on the floor, rather than the stage, and the audience is seated three-quarters round. Everything is very close quarters, perhaps closer than you ever thought you wanted to get to Macbeth. Of the many murders, the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and son were particularly gut-wrenching, largely due to Melanie O’Malley’s touchingly simple performance as the little boy. In the single brief scene Lady Macduff (an unfortunately shrill Kate Hess) and her son shared, O’Malley made you believe that she was a very young child, and a young child you liked. To watch this child get his throat slit, as his mother watched and wailed was a terrible thing, even though not a drop of stage blood was actually shed.
“O, full of Scorpions is my Minde, deare Wife”
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act III, scene ii
Bakerloo is a company of young theatre professionals, and there is no doubt in my minf that Macbeth is a story of youth and passion – were Macbeth and Lady Macbeth much more than 30 they would have steadier hands and minds and this tale of uncontrolled mayhem would not work. This is a very young couple, passionately but barrenly in love and wild to create. When they can’t create they destroy everyone and everything around them, and ultimately themselves.
Here the title role is assayed with youth and intensity by Eric Chase. The pivotal role of Lady Macbeth is split between Bakerloo’s three talented leading ladies – Sarah Murphy, Gwyn Hervochon, and Marsha Harman, in order of appearance e – who also play the three Weird Sisters throughout. While I admire the skills of all three actresses, and I felt that the transitions between them was handled very well and very clearly, I also felt a little like I was watching auditions for the three finalists for the role. If I were settling on a final cast, the fearless, bloodthirsty Murphy would get my vote. Hervochon, in the stark white-face sported by the entire cast, looked too much like the risen corpse of Bette Davis (which is very unfortunate because Hervochon is a beautiful woman.) I liked Harman much, much better as Duncan than I did as Lady Macbeth, and she got rather short shrift in that department, playing only the sleepwalking scene and then enduring her off-stage demise. (Just how DOES Lady Macbeth die?? Enquiring minds want to know!)
The early scenes when Chase is paired with Murphy are electric. Sometimes Lady Macbeth is played as the instigator (this is the Eve-Made-Me-Do-It approach to the story) but here Addis and his actors make it clear that the plot to murder Duncan is a team effort. Neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth could or would do it alone. In fact all of Macbeth’s success comes while he is physically with his wife. Once she dies, he is like a conjoined twin ripped from his symbiotic other with whom he shared heart and soul. In other words, he’s a goner.
As with their 2005 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Chase cleverly played both Puck and Puck transformed into Peter Quince to wreck havoc on the mechanicals, here the Weird Sisters lurk constantly in the dark perimeters of the stage, as if, unseen, their supernatural forces are manipulating all the unwitting players. While I am a little tired of the raccoon-eyes-and-piles-of-ratty-hair look that seem to be the Gen X version of all things un-earthly, Addis presented many truly spectacular visuals during the Witches’ scenes. The bubbling cauldron creating by a writhing body encased in stretchy white fabric, the ghostly faces and hands appearing through the white flats, the relentless clomp of boots as Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane, each image was created simply, flawlessly, and to chilling effect. In between scenes Tom Waits' throaty rasp in songs from his Blood Money album provide dark and lively musical counterpoint to the proceedings.
A vital component to the power of this production is the lighting design by Tony Tambasco. While not every cue was perfect at the opening night performance (National Grid helpfully shut down the power to Troy during the company’s scheduled tech rehearsal), the overall effect was stunning. The play is performed largely in a gloomy twilight, a nightmare landscape, the Dark Ages indeed!
Were this a play of unexpected horrors and murders, this intense and brutal production would be unbearable, but this Macbeth and we know what is coming. I am not a person who enjoys “a good scare.” I stay far away from the genre of horror in fiction and film, and I can’t say I ever head out the door to a production of Macbeth or King Lear or even Sweeney Todd in happy anticipation of the evening’s carnage, but watching this production I came as close as I ever will to understanding the enjoyment so many people get from horror stories. There is something cathartic about them, something satisfying in watching safely fictional characters act out all the nasty rotten things that secretly lurk in all of our hearts.
Last summer Bakerloo presented a modern dress Julius Caesar and claimed that play had great relevance to today’s political situation. Maybe that was the right play for the politics of 2006, but I found Macbeth with its portrait of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the desperate (and ultimately successful) attempt of a people to rid themselves of an out-of-control tyrant to be the right play for the politics of 2007. I will say no more.
Bakerloo is referring to 2007 as their Cursed Season, and the calendar gave them the fortuitous opportunity to hold their opening night on Friday the 13th. I believe that even non-theatre folks are dimly aware of the superstitions surrounding productions of Macbeth, to the extent that even speaking its name inside a theatre (unless you are actually performing the show) is considered bad luck, and thus it is generally referred to as The Scottish Play. If you commit the grievous faux pas of uttering the M-word, a lengthy ritual involving spinning and spitting is required to purge the house of the evil.
On a bulletin board in the lobby Bakerloo has posted a list of the woes that have befallen them as they prepared not just Macbeth but Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, the show that Moliere was performing in when he died, for performance. Their adventures included lightning strikes, power outages (curse you, National Grid!!) and broken eyeglasses, but thankfully not fatalities, or even severe sprains like one cast member suffered last year. As they remark in their program, these adventures will enter their own theatrical lore, just as have the many chronicled (and multitudinous unchronicled) troubles of centuries worth of the theatre-folks which perpetuate the legend. Thankfully, they have lived to tell their tales, and hopefully to return in 2008 to present a slightly less cursed but just as entertaining season.
The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of Macbeth will be performed July 13-15, 19 & 27 at 8 p.m. and July 20 at 2 p.m. at Academy Hall at the corner of 15th Street and College Avenue on the RPI campus in Troy, NY. Admission is $15 or $25 for a season pass. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission, and is definitely bloody. Whether or not you take your kids depends on how you feel about exposing them to both violence and to the classics. To order by phone or to get a season pass please call 877-238 5586
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007