The Tragedie of Macbeth
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 7, 2007
With The Tragedie of Macbeth, The New York Actors Ensemble and WorkShop Theater Co. give us a virtually uncut rendition of William Shakespeare's play, unadorned by any constraining or redefining directorial concept. The idea is to let this classic play speak for itself, and indeed especially for those who have never seen Macbeth on stage before, this is a clear and forthright presentation of a work whose presence in the canon feels pretty much indisputable.
The story takes Macbeth, fresh from impressive victories on the battlefield, on a date with destiny. Early in the play, he acquires a new title from his king, Duncan of Scotland; three "wayward sisters" (as they're called here; they feel like witches to me) advise him that he will also be king himself soon, though his successors will not be his own children but rather those of his friend and fellow general, Banquo. When Macbeth conveys this news to his wife, she urges him famously to "screw his courage to the sticking place" and take what's his (i.e., the crown) by slaying Duncan (who is conveniently visiting the Macbeths that very night).
David M. Mead, who has the title role in this production and is also its producer, gives us a pensive Macbeth who spends most of the play's first half figuring out what he should do and its second half trying to find a way to live with the consequences. I had never noticed before how much of Macbeth's time in this play is spent alone on stage, soliloquizing: especially in the earliest scenes, Mead shows us both this man's burning ambition and his intense thoughtfulness. His Macbeth isn't talked into anything by anybody. As a result, his eagerness to believe whatever the wayward sisters tell him is almost chilling: it's a bit frightening (though resonant) to see a smart powerful man embrace the supernatural just because it seems to serve his own cause so thoroughly.
Because Mead and his director, Charles E. Gerber, have chosen to keep Shakespeare's play intact, many other characters share some of the piece's focus; in addition to Lady Macbeth, rendered perhaps too savagely and showily by Susan Angelo, we spend time with Duncan himself (a fine performance by the veteran actor Noah Keen), Malcolm, Duncan's elder son and heir (well-played by Mick Bleyer), Macbeth's nemesis MacDuff (Jake Myers), and various lesser personages, among them the oft-cut Hecate (Leanne Littlestone). Standing out among the large ensemble are Letty Ferrer as the First Wayward Sister and Mike Finesilver, triple-cast as the Porter, the 2nd Murderer, and the Doctor. All of the actors acquit themselves nicely with the sometimes tricky language and rhythms.
Gerber also gives us an actual (very cute) one-year-old baby as the littlest of MacDuff's children. The old adage about acting with babies proves true here: the appealing Master Edward Wiley Fulton Myers, smiling and waving and cooing satisfiedly, effectively upstages everyone else in the show during each of his two brief appearances.
But Baby MacDuff aside, this Macbeth marches straightforwardly and forthrightly through its paces to tell its story. The theme that I found myself most left with was the notion that a tyrant such as Macbeth must be brought down at any cost. Where the play jells with our 21st century sensibility less comfortably, though, the strain shows —for example, a long seemingly light-hearted conversation between Lady MacDuff and her older son about what he would do if his father were killed has never quite worked for me in any production, and it failed to do so here as well.
The play's excitement quotient is toned down, possibly due to the space limitations of the WorkShop's stage, which restrict the scope of Galway McCullough's fight choreography significantly. Visually and aurally, though, the production is on target, with authentic-seeming period costumes by Amy Kitzhaber (including kilts for almost all of the men) and an evocative soundscape composed by Andy Cohen.