Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2002.

Last night I got to experience in person the famous old story about the night that legendary playwright and director George S. Kaufman stood in the back of the theatre watching the Marx Brothers performing one of the many plays he wrote for them and was heard to say, “Shhh! I think I just heard a line from the play!”

During Tina Packer’s production of Macbeth, currently running in the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, I was periodically roused from my deep puzzlement at the overwhelming number of bizarre acting and staging choices on display by the sound of some familiar words and I would think, “I know that line! It’s from Macbeth!” And then I would try once again to pay attention to the play, instead of the show.

Packer and her team of eight actors have labored so long and hard over “interpreting” this familiar tragedy, that it is barely recognizable. I don’t need kilts and sporrans, but I did not understand why Duncan was wearing Yassar Arafat’s headdress in one scene while many people on stage were speaking with Scottish accents. A Macbeth set consistently in the modern day Middle East might work. A new play, based on Macbeth, set in that time and place could be fascinating. But no one concept is fully explored or explained in this production.

I was reminded of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard II I saw many, many years ago in which one of the minor noblemen was inexplicably dressed as a giant bird. I spent so long pondering the possible meaning behind this unique decision on the part of actor, director, and costume designer, that I missed half the play. There was not just one incomprehensible decision in this production, but an endless parade. I felt as if every moment had been super-scrutinized and Packer had asked each actor to try to find some new way to say each line, some new body position to assume, or some new gimmick to insert. It made my head hurt. I just wanted everyone to calm down and let Dan McCleary and Carolyn Roberts show me more of that fascinating couple, the Macbeths (who were the only characters on stage not burdened with an outrageous Scottish accent).

When McCleary and Roberts are on stage together, they are very, very good. Their Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are fascinating. Human and inhuman in the same breath. Sensuous, cruel, ambitious, and terrified. I could watch them forever. And I could also happily watch Roberts alone on stage. Her new choices seem well selected and based in the character, not on the sole need to be inventive. When McCleary is soliloquizing however, which is frequently is, the audience is once again treated to endless invention for the sake of novelty instead of illumination. “What if I hung from this bar while I said this line?” McCleary seems to ask, and I say, “Go right ahead, if you want me to concentrate on the physique and flexibility of Dan McCleary rather than what Macbeth is saying, thinking, feeling, and doing at this moment in the play.”

Michael Hammond is very funny in the play’s one comic interlude, the porter’s scene, but I didn’t come to Macbeth to laugh. Packer and Hammond manage to turn a page of dialogue into a lengthy comic monologue that brings the action of the play to a screeching halt.

In the program, Packer mentions time as an obsession of Shakespeare’s. Certainly she has done unusual things with the time in which the play is set (the program says that it is an “indeterminate” time), the timing of the lines, and the time which it takes to perform this piece. I had always thought of Macbeth as a short (by Shakespearean standards), tightly constructed tragedy, but Packer has rendered it a ponderous size and shape. By the fifth act I was exasperated with trying to fathom all the cleverness and just longing for Birnam Wood to get off its macduff and head to Dunsinane so we could all go home.

During one of those moments when I heard an actual Shakespearean line intelligibly uttered, I felt I understood something profound and new about the play. It came at the end of Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking scene when Johnny Lee Davenport as the Doctor said, “Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.” I felt as if the sudden clarity with which my mind received this one sentence was perhaps the key to understanding some of what Packer and company were trying to tell me in this production, but I fear it would take me many sleepless nights of my own, with script in hand and mind feverishly at work, to piece it all together; which is far more work than its worth.

The Shakespeare and Company production of the Macbeth will be performed through August 31 at the Founders' Theatre on Kemble Street (Rt. 7A) in Lenox. The show runs three hours, including one intermission. There is gunfire and much stage blood throughout. I would not recommend this as a first exposure to Macbeth for young people, not because of its violence, but because it is so unlike what Shakespeare intended. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002

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