Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2008
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’
- Lady Macbeth, Act I, scene v
That blanket of dark enveloped Elizabeth Swain’s direction, Robert Anton’s set and costume design, and John McLain’s lighting making this the blackest Macbeth I have ever seen.
By the clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?
- Ross, Act II, scene iv
Watching this Macbeth, so very different from the staging by the Bakerloo Theatre Project which I saw and enjoyed just up the hill on the RPI campus this past summer, I had to remind myself that I was not its target audience. NYSTI is an educational theatre. The person who should have been in that seat was my fourteen-year-old self who had so carefully inscribed name, grade and section on the inside cover of the Arden Macbeth I still use. Most people are first exposed to Shakespeare’s Scottish play at about that age, and that is who NYSTI wants to reach.
This probably explains all the things that bugged me so much about this production, namely the aforementioned sets, costumes, and lights. The set was a ponderous, dim behemoth lurking behind the action. Anton claims to have been inspired by Stonehenge, and yes there were some big stone pillars somewhere back there in the murk and the playing area was circular, but I wasn’t struck with the resemblance.
The set was painted matte black and the costumes were black on black with an occasional splash of muted jewel-toned color added as an afterthought. Anton wanted the set and costumes to be timeless, but instead they ended up being pointless. The men were all clad in what looked like black jumpsuits covered with vests sporting many oddly-shaped pockets for some modern or futuristic ammunition, but they defended themselves with swords and daggers, not guns and grenades. They had black, bowl shaped helmets like the doughboys of World War I sported, and tiny little circular silvery shields barely big enough to protect the hands that carried them, let alone any vital organs. Towards the end Malcolm wore some see-through plastic armor over his jumpsuit, and others looked like sooty black versions of Star Wars Storm Troopers. Maybe these outfits appeal to the younger generation, but they left me cold.
Stickney, who is both a soap opera star and an accomplished Shakespearean actor, was dressed at one point almost entirely in black leather. I am actually a big fan of casting popular/good-looking actors in productions of the classics as a means of attracting young audiences, providing they have the acting chops, which Stickney certainly does. I was lured into a life-long love affair with the theatre by the sight of a handsome and talented actor starring in Shakespeare, and I am sure I am not the only one. Do what it takes to get young people in the door of the theatre, and if they are meant to stay, they will.
But I still found the black leather to be a bit much. It is one thing to have a soap star play Macbeth but he should look like Macbeth and not a soap star while he is doing it. I felt Stickney could easily have worn some of those leather looks as R.J. Gannon on the set of One Life to Live.
Stickney also sported his signature dreadlocks, beautifully coiffed, which easily reach to below his shoulder-blades when he is still and had to his masculine vivacity when he is in motion.
...my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't.
- Macbeth, Act V, scene v
I concluded this past summer that Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must have been under 30. Here Stickney and Mary Jane Hansen are a little older than that, but they bring the appropriate youthful energy and impulsivity to their roles.
Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up
Thine own life's means!
- Ross, Act II, scene iv
Hansen is all ambition, and, like Stickney, gives a strong performance, from which the immobile curtains of golden red hair wig designer Paul Huntley has plopped on her head completely distract. Her black gown, accented with various colored scarves, capes, and trains fitted her nicely and worked well, but why, oh why, did Anton make her wear a white lace tablecloth in the sleepwalking scene? All I could think of was a friend of mine who, at a loss for a costume one Halloween, cut head and armholes in an old lace tablecloth and went as the Ghost of Tablecloths Past. Hansen was trying to act. She was trying to present one of the greatest characters ever written for a woman in her most moving scene. It was shameful of the designer to make her wrestle with all those yards of cloth in the process.
This is all very, very sad because Stickney and Hansen are very good and this is a solid production of Shakespeare’s play. With the exception of Brian Nemiroff’s Malcolm, who was all Gosh-and-Golly-Gee boyish, I enjoyed the whole cast and felt that Swain had done a good job in presenting this most passionate and bloody of the Bard’s tragedies in an exciting way that would indeed capture the minds of the youngsters who are its primary audience. While I was insulted by Anton’s efforts, I was never insulted by Swain’s vision or the actors’ efforts.
John McGuire is the first actor to ever make me take an interest in Banquo, with whom I am more familiar with in his ghostly than fleshly form. McGuire does not reappear as Banquo’s Ghost, instead a lighting effect stands in for what Macbeth alone sees, as a different shaft of light does earlier when he asks “Is this a dagger I see before me?” No, it is not, but the lighting gives the audience a good clue as to what is transpiring in Macbeth’s mind.
I liked Emma Parsons Lady Maduff, and enjoyed her scene with young Anthony Rossi as her son and Eleah Peal as her daughter (and a swaddled lump representing a new baby). Peal had no lines, but at the end of the scene she emitted a powerful and heart-wrenching shriek as she clutched her infant sibling to her chest and ran for both of their lives.
I found Swain’s staging of the witches’ scenes to be rather predictable. Here, where inventive costuming and lighting could have done so much, Anny DeGange, Carole Edie Smith, and Alexandra Tarantelli looked like they could have stepped out of any high school production and on to the NYSTI stage.
John Romeo impressed in three roles – that of the Sergeant who brings word of the Thane of Cawdor’s treachery and Macbeth’s heroism, the Porter in the famous “knock, knock, knock” scene, and the doctor called in to advise on Lady Macbeth’s condition in the sleepwalking scene.
Robin Chadwick did a nice job as Duncan and as an old man. As Duncan Chadwick seemed a mite too old and frail – such a man would not have lasted long on the throne of Scotland in those bloody days – but as the unnamed old man who passes the time with Ross (Chi Wright) in Act ii, scene iv, he brought attention to an otherwise minor role and its significance in the whole.
Sixteen actors are used to play the forty-five named parts in the play, which means that most actors are playing more than one role. Here again Anton’s costumes let the production down. There are only six women in Macbeth, and with all the men dressed in identical matte black it does get confusing trying to figure out who is who. I understand that the guy wearing a length of blue cloth over his shoulder is different from the guy wearing the green, but I don’t necessarily understand who they are and what those colors signify.
I noticed that Swain has turned the volume down on both the sexual tension between Macbeth and his Lady and the violence in this production. I did not miss the groping a writhing between the leading couple which some directors use to indicate the passion with which Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to commit his foul deeds, but I did miss the some of the violence. I am not a fan of stage gore, but Macbeth is a gory play and I found having the murders of Banquo and Lady Macduff and all the little Macduffs occur offstage made me more apt to sympathize with Macbeth at the end.
The night is long that never finds the day.
- Malcolm, Act IV, scene iii
The first half of this production is indeed a long day’s journey into night. I was quite caught up in the action on stage when I became suddenly aware that I was tired of sitting in that seat. I am sure NYSTI needs to fit their school day performances into a set amount of time and that a second intermission might have pushed the run time over limit. As it is the show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with just one break, but the intermission is placed so that you are sitting through a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the play at first and then the remaining third or quarter afterwards.
The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of Macbeth runs through February 13 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children 13 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008