nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
April 21, 2007
[Note: A short synopsis of Macbeth is available here.]
Long before Avenue Q or The Lion King, puppets in the theater meant marionettes with lavish backdrops and invisible puppeteers. Thanks to the combined efforts of Milan's Compagnia Marionettisitca Carlo Colla e Figli and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, there is a rare opportunity to see this form of theatrical event in a beautifully designed production of Macbeth at the New Victory Theater. With marvelous music by Fabio Vacchi, it is a visual spectacle of 18th century theatrical design and staging styles. This feast for the eyes well makes up for certain somewhat weaker elements. Although not the clearest representation of the play itself, this Macbeth is akin to being a time machine to neoclassical drama. It is a very interesting and rare experience that should be taken advantage of.
The play opens with a bang (literally) and there are three creatures onstage, whose appearance falls somewhere between human and very angry looking trees. They are in the midst of a lush and dark forest. The witches start us off in this marvelously unreal manner, which is then is quickly transformed by stage screens into Duncan's war camp, which is brighter and more barren. These delightfully magical transitions between places continue throughout. Their specificity helps greatly to establish where the action is and how time changes, as well as being wonderful to look at.
There are 130 handcrafted marionettes in this production, enabling it to present some very interesting spectacles, highlighting the action in ways that traditional productions cannot always achieve. Here, Duncan's horse can literally shy away from entering Macbeth's castle. Bats can fly across stage on cue. However, the limits are equally obvious and sometimes distracting. Marionettes don't walk smoothly and that occasional jerkiness can undercut a dramatic moment when the character flounces out. Nor are marionettes noted for their stage combat and I did miss a good swordfight. Still, sometimes these weaknesses become strengths, as when Lady Macbeth takes the daggers from Macbeth. It requires time and care, and that tension creates a wonder, heightening the moment. The daggers gain a danger that most productions lack. Yet some things of the theater world remained constant: because yes, one marionette can upstage another—Macbeth was utterly shameless during Lady Macbeth's speech after the murder of Duncan.
The marionettes fill the entire stage of the New Victory, while the Chicago Shakespeare actors are seated in the orchestra pit, voicing the characters on microphones. It must be a very tricky endeavor to coordinate this division between puppeteer and puppet voice, and is not always successful. Often it felt as if the actors were speaking to connect with their character puppet and not the one to whom the lines are directed, so the connective energy was diluted—the audience visually being directed to one place but aurally being sent to another. Surprisingly, (especially as I have experienced a lot of very good voice work in prior productions of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's), too often the actors are operating under the misperception that verse might be too much for a young audience and that bright, shiny "character" voices were a better choice. Not true. Luckily, both Lisa Dodson (Lady Macbeth) and Joe Foust (as Gerolamo) give honest voices, with a comfortable use of verse that enhances and coordinates with the marionettes, furthering the magic.
Magic can contain mystery and here that is found in the addition of Gerolamo. A character added to this production, he combines various servants, the Porter, and the Doctor in the form of a commedia figure. Although one of the best characterizations of the Porter in my experience, Gerolamo also finishes the production with a form of marionette lazzi that I just didn't comprehend. It was odd but I felt affectionate enough about the character to shrug it off.
Although billed as appropriate for ages 12 and up, this Macbeth may be better suited to adults or those already familiar with the play. The text is severely cut and the program's synopsis could use more detail. Regardless of your age, don't miss some of Compagnia Marionettisitca's older marionettes that on display in the lower level of the theater.
This production is a very different experience of puppetry than the current Broadway offerings. It is much more blatantly theatrical. This Macbeth requires and richly rewards a commitment to following its own particular style.