BWW Reviews: Gamm Theatre Stages Masterful, Haunting MACBETH

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BWW Reviews: Gamm Theatre Stages Masterful, Haunting MACBETH

When Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre includes Shakespeare on its season schedule, audiences know the production will meet and exceed all expectations. The company's current offering - Macbeth, directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr. - is no exception to the rule. This superior staging cuts to the very core of the narrative, delving into characters' motivations and focusing on the import and resonance of Shakespeare's exquisite language.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most well-known tragedies, a deeply-psychological work that explores the basest aspects of unchecked ambition. The title character is first introduced as a respected and admired Scottish general. Macbeth's bravery on the battlefield brings him commendation and generous reward from the beloved King Duncan, but the prophetic, ominously attractive whispers of three elusive witches soon drench Macbeth's household - and all of Scotland - in innocent blood.

Sullivan achieves a character-driven Macbeth in part by keeping staging and props to a bare minimum. This spare environment - a slatted wooden floor, a neutral-toned wall of concrete at the rear of the stage, and a few key props in hand - redirects the audience's focus to the spoken word and to the actors' portrayals. It also allows for small effects to have a big impact. This production judiciously incorporates projections of various, often eerie images on the blank far wall, effectively producing spectral visions or discretely illuminating a character's innermost preoccupations.

As Macbeth, Tony Estrella interacts with these projections most regularly: a blood-soaked dagger hovers tauntingly before him just as he wavers in his purpose to murder King Duncan, and the ghosts of those he wronged continually haunt his waking hours. In these scenes - and indeed, throughout the entire performance - Estrella demonstrates his laudable proficiency as an interpreter of Shakespeare's work. He fully captures Macbeth's horror in the face of such fearful specters, but he doesn't limit his portrayal to Macbeth's guilt-laden obsessions or his insatiable ambition for the crown. Instead, Estrella introduces Macbeth with a glimpse of the admirable traits that made the man so very well regarded by his soldiers in the field and by King Duncan himself.

Estrella then gradually erodes each of Macbeth's more honorable qualities as the Weird Sisters' prophecy takes root in his being. Determination and dedication on the battlefield merge into a single-minded fixation with gaining and then keeping the crown; the dearest of war-time comradeships decays into jealousy and suspicion; and the man who fully recognized the noble nature of his king is the very man who plunges a dagger into the sleeping royal's heart. Estrella takes the most familiar of Macbeth's lines and, with careful and considered delivery, paints them in shades of desperation, bravado, paranoia, and even black humor. And as his ill-gotten reign unravels further and further, Estrella ably depicts the mounting weight of the sins on Macbeth's soul.

No less impressive is the outstanding performance of Jeanine Kane as the cool-headed and cold-hearted Lady Macbeth. Kane oozes ambition from the first; she presents Lady Macbeth as calculating and cunning, totally in control at all times. Even her stance - tall and straight-backed, looking the world directly in the eye - enhances the character's composition and poise. Kane also expertly marks Lady Macbeth's downfall in two significant ways. First is the subtle-yet-distinct change in her countenance when Macbeth, heady from his successful bid for the crown, begins to overreach and overreact; Kane allows the first flickers of doubt to appear in the Lady's eyes as Macbeth's mounting recklessness threatens her carefully organized plans. This initial slip of the mask heralds the fraudulent queen's ultimate end, with Kane adding indicators that all is not well to each following scene. Kane's portrayal of Lady Macbeth's famed madness is wholly riveting and utterly memorable; she uses each line of her monologue to depict just how fully altered the Lady is from the confident, self-possessed woman she was in the start.

The Weird Sisters' prophecy likewise resonates with Macbeth's one-time comrade, Banquo. Michael Forden Walker well plays Banquo's growing suspicions about his friend's involvement in Duncan's murder, adding a barely-perceptible aloofness to his interactions with the newly-crowned Macbeth. Walker has wonderful rapport with Elliot Peters, who plays Banquo's son, Fleance, as well. Peters brings lots of charm to Fleance's mock battles with invisible foes and he looks utterly overjoyed when the lad is allowed to heft his father's sword; he also convincingly exudes pure terror when bandits waylay the father and son late in the first act.

Jordan Ahnquist gives a solid, layered presentation as the reluctant prince Malcolm. Though Malcolm is practically going to pieces in his first lengthy scene (rattling off an entertaining-if-inexhaustible list of his personal insecurities to an exasperated Macduff), Ahnquist controls the character so well that he makes the later transition to settled, determined leader feel genuine and unforced. As Macduff, Steve Kidd's most substantial scenes fall during the second act; Kidd brings a palpable grief to Macduff's tragic losses and he allows that sorrow to shape his portrayal through the remainder of the play.

Speaking of the Macduff clan, Wendy Overly gives a wonderfully-nuanced delivery in her brief scene as Lady Macduff (Overly plays one of the three Weird Sisters as well). Overly runs a gamut of emotions, from anger to fear to melancholy, as Lady Macduff frets over her husband's hasty departure, but she also has the most adorable exchange with Bedros Kevorkian, the youngster playing Macduff's son. The duo jests back and forth, and the precocious little guy runs from one side of his mother's chair to the other, peppering her with questions all the while. When, all too soon, Macbeth's venom strikes out even at these innocents, Overly and Kevorkian share an absolutely unforgettable performance that is both heartrending and chilling.

The Gamm's Macbeth hints at the World War I era given designs of the soldiers' uniforms and the Weird Sisters' gas masks, though some of Lady Macbeth's gowns (including a magnificent, vintage-style beaded overdress) have a more mid-1920s feeling. Macbeth's servants similarly mimic the '20s vibe with a jaunty ragtime ukulele number, a lighthearted musical piece used as a stark transition directly after Banquo's violent demise. This production also has some standout fight scenes, the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff playing out with particular conviction and great speed.

Macbeth plays at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI through April 13, 2014. Ticket prices range from $38 to $48. Discount rates are available for subscribers, groups, seniors and students. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (401) 723-4266 or visit The Gamm online at www.gammtheatre.org.

Photo by Peter Goldberg.

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