Shakespeare is, famously, for all time; his plays should not become museum pieces. Playgoers sometimes grumble when they don't get their Bard "the way it was done back then," as if the theater's job was simply to repeat performances in perpetuity. That's why directors justifiably update the plays, so that their interpretations will grab us in whatever century we reside.
Well, for the current production of the Scottish play at the Civic, Director Jack Phillips has just such a contemporary concept. For openers, the weird sisters pop up with holograms and laser beams. Macbeth must not be allowed to outlive his final swordfight, or else a torrent of calamities will befall us Earthlings, the Nazis will win WWII, and a nefarious world government will cause us all to cringe forever in abject fear.
Call it the Twilight Zone approach to making Shakespeare our contemporary. It doesn't work. The audience knows it's being patronized, told in effect that all this iambic pentameter is just too darn difficult unless made familiar by stage business from a Deep Space Nine episode.
Phillips justifies the conceit with a program note that mentions the script's fascination with time. The witches thus become time travelers on a mission to alter Earth's history. But the text is quite clear on the limits of their power: Wishing a maritime disaster on an enemy, one of them chants, "Though his bark cannot be lost/Yet it shall be tempest-tossed." The weird women can plague men but not kill them, foretell the future but not change it. The premise of the director's concept comes unhinged.
The initial sci-fi scenario seems tacked on, and fortunately, after the opening sequence, never really returns. Once situated in medieval Scotland, though, the production is a mixed bag of haggis. In the title role, Maynard Villers is an imposing presence. In the early scenes, his unsettledness over the chiming of the witches' prophecies with his own ambitious desires seems overplayed, as does his nervousness just after the regicide is discovered. Once the despot is enthroned, however, Villers brings admirable intensity to the role. For my taste, he was too inactive during the "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" soliloquy, failing to make us share his visualization. The depressed and depressing "sound and fury" speech, however, is delivered with the actor slumped on the throne; Villers' impassivity strikes the right note of despair. As fight director for the production, Villers conveys almost enough viciousness in his swordplay to convince us that he sliced Macdonwald open and "first [broke] this enterprise" of the regicide to his wife. Almost.
For in this production, Macbeth and his wife don't really seem as if they might kill the king. Indeed, judging from her performance as Lady Macbeth, Margaret MacArthur must be an accomplished comic actress. Goggle-eyed, hands all aflutter, she hastens around the castle like a frenzied housewife. She recoils in horror from the sight of bloody daggers; she gets huffy at the slightest rebuke from her royal husband. Still, her performance is not without its high points. Particularly good was her choice, at the outset of the demonic "unsex me here" invocation, to blaspheme by knocking over a Celtic cross at the decisive moment. And MacArthur knows how to use the Lady's sexuality to lure her man into crime. But neither of these Macbeths really conveys any cold-bloodedness. Both characters are plagued by guilt, of course, but their hands are also smothered in blood.
In the evening's best performance, however, as Macduff, Jhon Goodwin does seem capable at any moment of disemboweling his opponent. Goodwin, moreover, makes us see his thane's difficulty in deciding to side with the opposition to Macbeth. In another scene, he is given a loyalty test by Duncan's heir, Malcolm (Craig William Dingle, devilishly languorous and manipulative); Goodwin convincingly ranges from disillusionment to distrust, then from grief to righteous anger. He has such a powerful stage presence, largely because he's the only actor in the cast who just might burst out right now in sudden reckless bloody violence. Worth seeing is his Braveheart bloodlust in the final battle.
Phillips blocks his cast well, especially in both throne room scenes and in the poker game of manipulation between Malcolm and Macduff. The trio of designers' costumes -- persuasively medieval -- are above average for community theater. David Denman Smith provides the requisite eerie music.
But there is just too much unintended humor in this production. The witches appear in one scene with something approaching Bob Marley hair. And there are some awfully tinny fanfares for the royal processions.
While Macbeth is ostensibly appalled that Banquo's progeny will inherit the throne, the audience is laughing at a slide show culminating in pictures of the current scoundrel-apparent, Prince Charles, and then some future kid in ermine. The feeble wailing of women at Lady Macbeth's demise drew guffaws. The choice is made at the end, regrettably, to go with the severed-head-on-a-popsicle-stick effect. (Even while the gore is done convincingly here, the result is still snickering among the spectators -- not the dramatist's intent, even if 1605 London did display traitors' heads on pikes at the city gates.) And all that's fatal, if we're intended to feel the stickiness of blood-gouts and hear the croaking of the raven.
Short, intense, haunting performances should perhaps go without an intermission, and any production of Macbeth should aim at those qualities. But at two-and-a-quarter hours and with a couple of prolonged scene changes, such groping for intensity -- there's no interval -- only makes watching this Macbeth more of a chore. For the school kids who will see this show, and for others, perhaps seeing it for the first time since high school, that's a shame. The curse on the Scottish play continues.