In my 34 years of teaching high school English, I've probably taught Macbeth to close to 3400 students, watched films versions countless times and attended about five live performances, but rarely have I seen as riveting a production as the one onstage at the Actors Shakespeare Company. If you think Shakespeare is boring or for intellectual types, get on over to the Westside Theatre in Jersey City where the joy of seeing the play performed live will make you (teenagers, college students and adults) a Bard-lover forever.
Everyone who has graduated from an American high school knows the plot. Three witches prophesy that a courageous Scottish warrior named Macbeth will become Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and “King hereafter.” The first two predictions are fulfilled in short order, but his hopes for the third are dashed when King Duncan names as heir his young son Malcolm. Egged on by his beautiful spouse, Macbeth takes matters into his own hands, murders Duncan, assumes the throne of Scotland when Malcolm and his brother flee the country and, to cover up the crime, commits subsequent murders, among them the vulnerable family of his nemesis, Macduff. Buoyed by further predictions by the witches, Macbeth faces Macduff, and upon learning that he is not “of woman born,” accepts his fate with dignity.
There are two aspects of the ASC production that really stand out for me. One, is the striking scenic design by Timur Kocak, which consists of a long playing space set between two facing banks of seats. There isn't a bad seat in the house, and one feels almost as if he/she is watching an athletic competition for the soul of Macbeth. At either end sits a granite plinth holding a large basin, one red as though filled with blood, the other clear. The seven actors sit in two groups at each end of the stage, where they provide sound effects and change costumes to assume the myriad of parts they assume (more about that later). If you have ever wondered just what a lighting director/designer does for a play, then this production is a fine example. Most of the time, the ends of the stage are shrouded in darkness, with spotlights pointing us to look to where the action is occurring. Creative lighting projected on the floor suggests a witches' cauldron and even conveys the presence of a table in the banquet scene. It's inspired lighting! Eva Lachur-Omeljaniuk's costumes are appropriately medieval (the real Macbeth lived in the 11th century), allowing actors to change character by the addition of a tabard, a cloak, a hat, a robe. Michael Hajek has provided props galore to enhance the sense of place and time. And yes, there is lots of blood.
You may wonder how just seven actors can portray the large cast of thanes, courtiers and servants (not to mention the three witches) needed to tell the tale of Macbeth. This is accomplished by a technique called "doubling," whereby one actor plays several characters. Most of the time, this works quite well; trouble comes with the actor playing Malcolm/Young Macduff and another taking the roles of Macduff and Macbeth's servant Seyton. The characters don’t look sufficiently different to make a quick distinction. Perhaps a hat or a different tabard would help. But both occur near the end of the play so that viewers who have been paying attention heretofore can easily make the adjustment.
Praise goes to director Colette Rice for selecting a cast of stellar actors and letting them loose on the large stage while keeping a tight rein on the action. As Macbeth, Michael Basile is the only character who doesn't double in a speaking role. He commands the audience's attention from the minute he appears, resolute and confident in his ability as a military general. His disappointment at being passed over to succeed Duncan as King ((his being named Thane of Cawdor, the messengers tell him, is "in earnest of a greater honor") is totally understandable, and even as his wife works her feminine wiles on him, we sense he is at heart an honorable man, albeit an ambitious one. Basile delivers Macbeth's several soliloquy's naturally, as though they are the ruminations of his mind. And by the time he faces his end, we are almost rooting for him to prevail, despite his horrible deeds.
Denise Hurd's Lady Macbeth is less evil temptress than mature, supportive wife who knows her husband better than he knows himself. When she tells him she'd dash her nursing child's brains out had she promised him to do so, we really believe her. Her performance is also natural, and the chemistry between the couple is convincing.
As Macbeth's lieutenant Banquo, Elizabeth Belonzi is stalwart, wary, curious and, as a ghost returned to haunt Macbeth, frightening. Patrick Harvey as Malcolm grows before our very eyes from callow youth saved from capture by Macbeth to a survivor who sizes up the situation after his father's murder to hie himself to England for safety to crafty politician who toys with Macduff to discern whether the thane's loyalty is real and trustworthy. Jonathan Dewberry's star turn as the drunken porter is a comic foil to the awful events unfolding within the castle; the truth of his lines comes clearly through after what we've just watched. And Terence MacSweeny is equally as stellar in the role of Macduff who comes loaded for bear to confront his nemesis in the final scene. Able support is provided by Colin Ryan in a variety of roles.
Of course, everyone remembers the three weird sisters, the witches, in Macbeth, whose very appearance in the first scene sets the stage so that "fair is foul, and foul is fair," the conundrum at the very heart of the story. Donning ragged cloaks and hoods that have long hair attached, Jonathan Dewberry, Patrick Harvey and Terence MacSweeney have a fine time concocting those noxious potions and toying with our tragic hero. They are especially interesting in the final scene (not included by Shakespeare) in which they turn on the audience!
Music Master Anthony Bez and Fight Manager Mark McCarthy are to be commended for their efforts at making the production eerie and violent.
Far from the usual caricature, Colette Rice and her cast present a Macbeth worthy of being called a tragedy. It’s the tale of a highly regarded man who brings about his own downfall by a flaw in his character—in other words, “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” But this production is far from that, one that breaks the play’s curse, one that should be revisited by all former students and experienced by those currently reading the play in class.
Macbeth will run through April 1 at the 125-seat Westside Theatre, 485 West Side Avenue, off Culver Avenue and just minutes from Routes 440 and 1&9. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 PM and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call 201.200.2390 or visit online at www.ascnj.org.
Photos by Boyle Images.