Saturday, November 23, 2013

MacBeth at Lincoln Center Theatre

There is a bounty of Shakespeare on and off-Broadway this New York theater season. Unfortunately Jack O'Brien's production of MacBeth does little to recommend it over the vastly superior productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III being performed a little ways down the Great White Way. The Lincoln Center Theatre production is a classic example of what happens when a director has an specific concept through which he interprets Shakespeare's text that ends up being detrimental to the proceedings.

A director having a strong vision is not necessarily a bad thing. A few seasons ago in a regional theater production that performed in New Jersey and Washington DC Aaron Posner and Teller brought a marvelous mysticism to MacBeth by incorporating actual magic to the proceedings. Alan Cummings' one-man performance on Broadway this past spring was a masterful distillation of the essence of the play highlighting the power and the madness in the story. The problem here is that the audience gets a lot of sound and fury, wrapped in a dark, gothic bow that surrounds a center with very little substance.

Jack O'Brien is not the first director to focus MacBeth on the supernatural elements. Nor is he the first to have said witches portray various background characters to suggest that fate is always manipulating the outcome of the story. The witches, vibrantly portrayed by Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets, are delightful in their wickedness. Aided by Francesca Faridany as the seldom included Hecate, the witches give hope from the start that this will be a passionate, bloody evening of theater. It would be except that the central characters of MacBeth and his Lady seem neutered by stripping away their own raw ambition for power.

Ethan Hawke's MacBeth gives us little reason to understand why this loyal Scottish general turns into an ambitious and paranoid murderer. It does not help that his diction is lacking. Racing through crucial speeches in the text, meaning and nuance get lost. Mr Hawke is stronger in the second half of the story once he starts to struggle to secure his throne. However the change comes too late in the evening to salvage his performance.

Anne Marie Duff is an icy Lady MacBeth. Seemingly directed to not be the driving force behind ensuring that MacBeth murders King Duncan that decision lessens the impact of her performance. Her sleepwalking scene is riveting, another example of showing the audience too late the potential of what her performance could have been.

The ensemble that supports them is filled with a mixed bag of performances. It is clear who has classical training and who does not. The standouts include Bianca Amato in her one scene as the doomed Lady MacDuff, Daniel Sunjata as a passionate and angry MacDuff (someone consider having him play the title role sometime soon) and Brian d'Arcy James as the loyal Banquo who shows great nuance as he witnesses his friend's ambitious rise to power then falls victim to it.

The design elements are interesting. The set is dominated by a replica of "The Seal of God's Truth" a medieval mandala showing God and his angels, well executed by designer Scott Pask. Catherine Zuber's costumes are of no particular period seeming a dark mashup of leather and couture. Mark Bennett's sound and original music is quite bombastic, in many ways overpowering the actors.

In the end Jack O'Brien and his company of actors deliver a most unsatisfying evening of theater. The witches and Hecate will entertain you, but it is not enough to save this bloodless production of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy.

Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont presents Shakespeare's MacBeth with tickets currently available through January 12, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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