BWW Review: MACBETH at HSC and Central PA's Shakespeare Season
Surrounding the Bard's 400th birthday, it's been a good time for a lot of Shakespeare, which has not come without controversy. Despite the well known fact that Shakespeare's casts were entirely male, with boys playing women's roles, there have been rumblings about gender-blind casting with women playing male parts, even though women have played male Shakespearian leads at least since Sarah Bernhardt took on the role of Hamlet. Meanwhile, English theatre critic Dominic Cavendish feared publicly this year that a female Malvolio in TWELFTH NIGHT spells the end of the great male Shakespearian actor, and playwright Ronald Harwood fears that female performers in Shakespeare are "an insult" to the playwright (well, perhaps to Harwood as playwright; one somehow doubts that Shakespeare would have minded a bit of further gender twisting).
Theatre of the Seventh Sister and Lancaster Country Day School broke some ground locally by giving, this spring, a production of ROMEO AND JULIET with all parts properly cast by age, meaning a Juliet actually young enough to be the Lady Capulet's daughter, with alternating male and female Romeos - and the female Romeo not being a woman playing a male Romeo, but a lesbian character, against a closeted lesbian Juliet, giving "In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman" a particularly relevant twist to the dialogue. Lancaster Country Day School also promoted its campaign against bullying of LGBT students in the program, a commendable measure. Although this writer had some issues with the manipulation of characters (the female production doesn't make Juliet's closeted status readily apparent, causing some confusion at moments), LCDS director Kristin Wolonin's efforts in adaptation were still worthy, and kudos to Cynthia Charles of Seventh Sister for running with this well-performed joint project.
Audiences were also treated this year to a particularly wonderful production of KING LEAR at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, in which Artistic Director Edward Fernandez took the starring role.
Also in Lancaster, the People's Shakespeare Project has moved to Binns Park this year for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, ending on June 19; it's free, but with a ten-dollar suggested donation.
The big summer Shakespeare event of the summer in Central Pennsylvania is normally Harrisburg Shakespeare Company's Shakespeare in the Park in Harrisburg, and this year at Reservoir Park, the action has been particularly bloody with HSC's rousing production of the Scottish play, a story about a problem politician named MACBETH. Director Clark Nicholson's adaptation is perhaps unintentionally timely, from Macduff (Sean Adams) carrying Macbeth's bloody severed head - unintended shades of Kathy Griffin's recent political brouhaha - to the decimation of dissenters against the new regime.
The Three Witches - Amber Mann, Gabriella DeCarli, and Francesca Amendola - have an interesting twist here, being summoned by Karen Ruch's Hecate to arise from the dead of the Norwegians slain by the Scottish troops led by Macbeth (Thomas Weaver). It's Nicholson's opinion that this is supported by the text, though most versions of the text and productions have the Witches appear before the battle with the Norwegians. (Lord knows it's nonetheless far better than having Alan Cumming play all of them with video cameras.) The Witches, who resemble throughout the production nothing so much as extras from THE WALKING DEAD do, however, have a great deal of personality and magical ability for being some loose Norwegian zombies, and the conceit is actually entertaining without doing real violence to the story.
The cast is well-chosen; Michael James Kacey is a fine Duncan, Alex Winnick a satisfying Malcolm. Winnick's exchange with Macduff - Sean Adams in some of his best form - is certainly pleasing, if indeed it's a bit hard to picture Winnick as being the fiendish scoundrel he professes. It's a little hard to think that Macduff is going to fall for this Malcolm being much more than a young rapscallion, though the text insists he's persuaded.
But it's Weaver and Tara Herweg-Mann as Lady Macbeth who star here, and who, as should be expected with parts this juicy, eat up the set without its being far too obvious. Herweg is particularly delightful in action, a truly bloody bitch who is nothing so much as Ruch's Hecate's twin sister. Weaver's Macbeth, thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland, and slightly demented murderer, may well be alternately triumphant and tortured, but one senses that Weaver is having a fine time grabbing on to one of Shakespeare's greatest characters with both hands and wrestling himself into the shape of, as Hecate indicates, one who finds security his chiefest enemy.
There's nothing quite so engaging as grand Shakespearian madness, and Weaver and Nicholson plainly know it. While nothing may compare to Alan Cummings' Macbeth lolling in the tub, Weaver's dinner with a ghost and Herweg's grand attempts as Lady Macbeth to pass his behavior off as "never mind, the King gets this way sometimes" are stuff an audience can sink into with joy. The madness of Hecate and the three degenerating-before-your-eyes witches, the madness of Lady Macbeth, and the growing madness of Macbeth himself cheerfully dwarf the sanity of Malcolm, Macduff, and their followers, as well as of Banquo, played by Andrew Nyberg. Banquo here, as a ghost, appears less often than he does in some productions, lending a greater air of madness to Macbeth's reactions to the ghostly presence than occurs when Banquo's ghost is visible.
With the exception of the rather distracting ghoul-witches, there's little to complain of here, and a great deal (including the ghoulish witches for zombie fans) to enjoy. A good production of MACBETH is proof that most people who think they don't like Shakespeare have never seen Shakespeare, the master of blood-and-guts adventures and ripping yarns. In the park it's better still; when Shakespeare originally produced his works, people ate, drank, got up and stretched. They didn't sit quietly without fidgeting while waiting for a break. They were also prone to vocal commentary on the show they were watching. Shakespeare outdoors is a chance to experience that type of relaxed audience behavior that suits the original work. MACBETH was written to be enjoyed with drinks and a few loud boos at the villains. (Throwing things at the villains, however, is discouraged.)
Through the 17th at Reservoir Park, Harrisburg. Followed in July, back at the Gamut theatre downtown, with a one-weekend production, HEDY! THE LIFE AND INVENTIONS OF HEDY LAMARR, one of the most interesting people ever to take up acting as well as spying and the cell phone. Visit www.gamuttheatre.org.
Photo credit: Kelly Ann Shuler