Macbeth's fatal attraction

September 19, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Evil is at the bloody heart of Shakespeare's great tragedy, "Macbeth," and the central scenic image in the Shakespeare Theatre's production is a heart -- or, more precisely, a tree shaped like a heart with veins and arteries for branches.

Is Macbeth -- intriguingly and intensely played by Stacy Keach -- evil at heart? Or, once exposed to evil, does it spread through his veins like a disease?

Keach adopts the disease model, showing us a man who, as he and his wife explain in the banquet scene with Banquo's ghost, has long suffered from "a strange infirmity." Initially, this infirmity is exhibited as a slight twitch, which seems to register as disbelief, or, as he gets more mired in evil, distaste.

But however much Macbeth's conscience -- and Keach definitely portrays him as a man with a conscience -- may question his murderous deeds, the act of committing murder works on him like an illness that he can no longer fight.

Keach's take on Macbeth is praiseworthy for its logic as well as for leaving room to sympathize with a character who can easily be played as a thoroughgoing villain.

Keach's interpretation is one of several laudable elements in director Joe Dowling's production. Dowling starts the evening with a battle scene, graphically demonstrating how Keach's Macbeth exults in bloodshed. The director then has the play's three witches -- vigorous young women (Leslie Silva, Karen Tsen Lee and Pilar Witherspoon) instead of the typical "filthy hags" -- rise up from among the corpses strewn on the battlefield. Licking their lips as if they have fed on the dead, the trio climbs the heart-like tree. Though Dowling has cut some of the witches' scenes, he compensates by making them a more frequent presence. They repeatedly look down on the action while perched in the blood-red tree, and decked out in evening gowns, they participate in Macbeth's coronation, handing him his ill-gotten crown.

Helen Carey's depiction of Lady Macbeth is equally insightful. Though she plays her with the shrewd determination of a woman whose castle is her battlefield, she offers an early indication of her final unraveling. Calling on the spirit world to "unsex" her, she hisses and crawls on the ground in a manner reminiscent of the witches. The madness she suffers turns out to be in direct proportion to the resolve she inspires in her husband when she encourages him to murder the king.

The play's sole note of tenderness is beautifully sounded by Caitlin O'Connell's Lady Macduff in her affectionate exchange with her young son just before they are slaughtered. This death scene, though one of the production's less graphic, is also its most chilling thanks to the small touch of almost sparing Macduff's daughter, until her crying gives her away.

Not all the action is up to this level; the one in which Chris McKinney's Macduff and Matthew Rauch's Malcolm join forces against Macbeth bogs down the otherwise swift pace. But such are few in a production that is as strong visually as it is viscerally, thanks largely to the eerie magic of designer Howell Binkley's lighting and Ming Cho Lee's stark black, white and red set.

One of the most striking visual aspects is the framing of the show with an image similar to one in the Tarot deck. When the play begins, a corpse hangs by its feet from the tree. When it ends, the corpse is that of the headless Macbeth. According to the Tarot, the hanged man symbolizes spiritual wisdom and self-sacrifice. Without the head, it is the wisdom that appears to have been sacrificed.

Stacy Keach plays Macbeth as sick with evil


Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St, N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 5

Tickets: $13-$47.50

Call: (202) 393-2700

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