Saturday, September 27, 2008

Macbeth, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(Laura Perrotta as Lady Macbeth and Dougfred Miller as mad Mac himself)

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to open a new, completely redesigned theater with a play suspected of bringing bad luck to the people involved. This old wives’ tale started in 1606, during the play’s premiere, when the boy playing Lady Macbeth died off stage. And over the years, there have been documented cases of tragic event befalling other productions of the “M” play.

As a result, superstitious theater folk refer to Macbeth as “the Scottish Play,” to avoid saying the dread name of a script that intently explores the attraction of evil. However, in the absence of any supernatural curses, this maiden effort by the Great Lakes Theater Festival in their new Hanna Theatre is destined to be a triumph, as it is quite a stunning visual and aural experience. And although there are some wrinkles, both the new space and this interpretation of Macbeth come off as winners.

For years, Hanna has been the dowdy stepsister among the elegant theaters situated at Playhouse Square (or “PlayhouseSquare” as the entity now prefers to be known, for cunningly clever marketing reasons that are beyond our pay grade to explain). The renovation has made Hanna young again, or at least youngish, with a thrust stage equipped with a hydraulic lift and new seating options being the boldest changes. (For instance, you can now park your Shakespeare-hating hubby at a bar stool where he can gaze dolefully at the stage while soaking his pout in a double Beefeater.)

Wisely, the powers that be have kept and refurbished the original architectural elements and have installed comfortable, traditional theater seating with no one parked farther than 12 rows from the stage. This makes for a much more intimate experience, with improved acoustics, over the Ohio Theatre (which will still be home to the annual GLTF production of A Christmas Carol).

As for Macbeth, director Charles Fee and his production team have pulled out all the stops to make this Shakespearean drama a signature event, and they succeed in many ways. The set, designed by Gage Williams, is arrestingly dominated by a backdrop unit consisting of slashing black lines intersecting at all angles—a morbid web spun by an angry spider.

And the spider in this case is none other than the title character, a courageous warrior who turns ever more ambitious and homicidal as he grasps for and then attempts to hold onto power. It is a rich role and Dougfred Miller has some resonant moments, particularly when he’s plotting with his wife, played with sly passion by Laura Perrotta, and during the bloody happenings in the second act. But for much of the first act, Miller merely rides the riptide current of his speeches instead of shaping, and thereby owning, them.

Other actors in the company also fall too easily into the oratorical Shakespeare trap, delivering their lines as if they were isolated thought bubbles instead of words intended to manipulate their immediate reality. Part of this may be an involuntary reaction to one of the most startling, and often most startlingly effective, staging decisions: the addition of live drummers.

On each side of the stage there are two guys pounding on large drums, interspersed with their banging on suspended sheets of metal that serve as the world’s largest cymbals. Inspired by Japanese drumming styles, the propulsive percussion evokes a feeling of war and conflict. It’s a visceral and often captivating effect.

But there is too much of this good thing, and at times it sounds like a drum-version of a laugh track on a cheesy sitcom—rim shots thrown in to heighten the dramatic effect. Also, there are times when the actors seem constrained in their timing, afraid they will be drowned out by the next volley of drum riffs.

But no matter how much you like extravagant drumming exhibitions (and who doesn’t?), there’s more to this “Stomp” Macbeth than that. The Japanese theme also spills over into Star Moxley’s costumes, flowing kimonos and flared shoulder pad armor that add grace and exuberant precision to the visual impact of the production. And the inventive lighting design by Rick Martin nicely delivers specific moods, such as within the “Is that a dagger I see before me?” scene, when spots turn the central red circular platform alive with shifting shafts of light like gleaming knife blades.

Turning in solid performances are Lynn Robert Berg as Banquo and David Anthony Smith as Macduff, whose speech of grief after his entire family is slain by mean Mac is an affecting moment in a blood-drenched evening.

But perhaps the most dazzling part of this production is the trio of alert, white-faced witches, outfitted with raven-black fabric “wings” that extend out a yard beyond their hands. Manipulating their flaps with sticks held in their hands, the three actors (Sara M. Bruner, Laura Welsh Berg and Cathy Price) create thrilling images whether they fold up like trees, hobble like some large insects, or sweep across the stage in almost-flight.

Director Fee is to be saluted for creating a magical telling of this play that lingers somewhere between reality and illusion. It is a fitting inaugural production for this old dowager of a theater that has suddenly woken up, frisky and ready to play.

Through November 7 (in rep
with In the Woods), Hanna
Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street,
Cleveland, 216-241-6000

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