`Macbeth' actors, tricks of light delight

Use of shadows on stage adds to intrigue of production


September 08, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Shakespeare's Macbeth is a play whose title character concocts and carries out his most heinous deeds in the dark. So it's especially fitting that shadows figure prominently in the new production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.

In director Michael Kahn's eerie vision - augmented by designer Michael Chybowski's spectral lighting - the prophesying witches first appear in shadow behind a scrim of bare trees. Later, when Macbeth revisits the witches for further soothsaying, their predictions take the form of shadows.

Even in the play's sole comic scene, the inebriated porter illustrates his off-color ramblings by making shadow figures on the rear wall. And later, when news of Lady Macbeth's suicide reaches her husband, the shadow of her limp body hanging from a noose is seen in the background.

One of the most intriguing couples in Shakespeare's canon, the Macbeths are presented "with surpassing irony ... as the happiest married couple in all his work," according to critic Harold Bloom. In Kahn's interpretation, this happy couple undergoes a startling role reversal.

In the beginning, Patrick Page's Macbeth is an almost modest warrior, boyishly handsome and delighted to be honored by the king for distinguishing himself in battle. No stranger to playing scoundrels, Page is making his Shakespeare Theatre debut while on leave of absence from co-starring as the evil Scar in the Broadway production of The Lion King. But far from portraying Macbeth as a thoroughgoing villain, he brings naturalness to his depiction, as well as to his delivery of Shakespeare's verse.

Kelly McGillis, in contrast, approaches Lady Macbeth with studied formality, but most importantly, she plays her as a wife whose ambition for her husband makes her a cunning instigator. In one of the director's many revelatory small touches, McGillis takes the Thane of Cawdor's badge of office - which the king has just bestowed on Macbeth - and puts it around her neck; she's a spouse who doesn't merely share her husband's promotion, she claims it as her own.

Yet as the play progresses and Macbeth's resolve strengthens, his wife's begins to waver. While Page's Macbeth transforms himself into a cold, cocksure killing machine, McGillis' Lady Macbeth retreats into disquiet, vulnerability and eventually, madness.

Helping usher her along the path to insanity are the three witches (Naomi Jacobson, Sarah Marshall and Jewell Robinson), whom Kahn also has portray the Macbeths' servants. Though not an original interpretation - Kahn did it himself in his 1988 production for this theater - it's a highly effective one. Repeatedly, the witches appear to egg the action on or at least ensure that it follows their preordained course. They are Lady Macbeth's ladies in waiting, for example, as well as the attentive servers in the banquet scene with Banquo's ghost.

Kahn takes an interesting approach to this banquet scene, choosing not to show us the ghost. The result makes Macbeth appear even more unhinged as he rages with mounting vehemence about an apparition invisible to everyone else, including the audience.

The production has only one notably weak performance. Brandon Demery seems oddly disinterested as Malcolm, heir to the Scottish crown. Shakespeare Theatre regular Andrew Long, however, distinguishes himself once again, this time as the resolute, heartbroken Macduff.

Costume designer Linda Cho clothes the actors primarily in black and white, adding red accents to the wardrobe of the Macbeths after they commit regicide. The central feature of John Coyne's starkly modern set is a cube framed in aluminum poles. This space serves variously as the Macbeths' bedroom and the witches' lair, shared uses whose association is hardly coincidental.

Overall, the production displays a more cohesive vision than Kahn's eclectic 1988 interpretation. Where his earlier staging showed a world in transition from pagan to Christian, medieval to Renaissance, this latest production presents an established order overthrown, then reinstated. It's a less radical approach, but an intelligently grounded one marked by strong key performances and rich visual interest.


Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, noon Sept. 15, 22 and 28. Through Oct. 24

Tickets: $12.75-$68

Call: 877-487-8849

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