Bloody, anemic `Macbeth'

Review: Awash in blood and violence, `Macbeth' at Center Stage still fails to deliver a sense of true horror.

March 30, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Center Stage's production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" emphasizes the play's violence and bloodshed. Yet even this focus on the visceral never truly grabs you in the gut.

The most successful scenes in this loud, and at times crude, production are those involving the witches. In these supernatural interludes, director Tim Vasen's interpretation takes on a vitality and fascination often lacking in the rest of the evening.

Admittedly, crudeness, noise and blood aren't bad choices for a play about 11th-century Scottish warriors. And occasionally Vasen uses the crudeness, in particular, to real advantage.

After he has murdered King Duncan, Ritchie Coster's Macbeth rubs his eyes with his bloody hands, a gesture that suggests he now sees through a veil of blood. Sean Haberle's Macduff does the same thing at the end, after killing Macbeth, and this time the image of a bloody mask ominously hints that the carnage could continue.

But for all its gore and savagery, this production rarely evokes the level of horror suitable for Shakespeare's unrelenting story of a decent man's descent into pure evil. Nor is this a production that will leave you pondering such moral issues as the struggles between good and evil, free will and fate.

Far from eliciting fear or prompting moral debate, several scenes at Tuesday's final preview performance were so off the mark they met with inappropriate titters of laughter -- the banquet scene in which Lady Macbeth tries to downplay her husband's irrational behavior after he sees Banquo's ghost, and even more oddly, the scene in which Macduff learns of the murder of his wife and children.

One of the production's most serious difficulties is the pairing of Coster, as the ambitious title character, with Pippa Pearthree as the wife who eggs him on. Despite passionate embraces and Pearthree's unwavering intensity, there is little chemistry between husband and wife.

Pearthree is a petite actress, and though her size could be used to advantage by overturning our expectations, she rarely exhibits the forcefulness necessary to do so. And, costume designer Ilona Somogyi has dressed her in a velvet gown so long, it makes her look even smaller and less effectual. The result is that instead of being Macbeth's chief motivating influence, she comes across as a mere accessory.

Coster fares better as Macbeth. Though intrigued by the witches' predictions that he will eventually become king, he initially appears troubled and uncertain about whether to commit the assassination that will make this possible.

In a provocative reading of the famous soliloquy that begins, "Is this a dagger which I see before me," Coster's Macbeth seems to be metaphorically trying the dagger on for size, as if testing his nerve. By the final battle scenes, however, he has become so cocky, he is virtually drunk with the notion of his invincibility, an impression he reinforces by going into combat not only without armor, but bare-chested. (Somogyi's costume designs rely heavily on leather and so much bare skin you find yourself worrying the warriors will catch cold in Scotland's often damp, chilly climate.)

The production is at its best when it comes to the three witches. Lighting designer Matthew Frey uses a preponderance of shadows to set the weird sisters off against Michael Vaughan Sims' largely bare set. Yet despite these spooky atmospherics, as well as their rats'-nest wigs and rough garments, Joy Ehrlich, Julyana Soelistyo and Dale Soules are more playful than malignant creatures, an interpretation that only heightens our interest in them.

The witches' impact on Macbeth, however, is unquestionably malevolent. And director Vasen drives home the hold they have on him by double-casting the actresses as servants in the Macbeth household.

With a cast of only 12, the production relies on multiple casting (some roles have also been eliminated, including Duncan's younger son and several Thanes). Most of the larger supporting performances are fine, especially those of Haberle as fierce Macduff, and Jonathan Peck as virtuous Banquo. As Duncan's older son and successor, however, Robert Alexander Owens appears more weak than young.

Although "Macbeth" is one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, it has a reputation for being cursed. In his book, "Witches and Jesuits," Garry Wills primarily attributes this reputation to "the seeming unplayability of the piece." Center Stage's production has a number of effective elements, but overall it does little to dispute Wills' assertion.

`Macbeth'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, 1 p.m. April 5 (sign-interpreted performance April 25); through May 7

Tickets: $10-$45 Call: 410-332-0033

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