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Macbeth

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

We no longer have anything to fear from July and August: Bucking all meteorological trends and traditional New York traffic patterns, June has just proclaimed itself the hottest month of the year. But this precipitous rise in temperature can't be attributed to the sun or even global warming. No, it's emanating from the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Forget Brad and Angelina and (especially) Harry and Kelli - it's in Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle that the year's real steam heat can be found. As the lord and lady who share the name of the William Shakespeare classic they're currently setting ablaze, Macbeth, these two Tony-winning stars are cannily proving that the world's sexiest writer has been dead for 400 years.

What might appear on the page as stuffy, stuffed pronouncements of ambition intertwined with lunacy are, in Schreiber and Ehle's hands, the sizzling pillow talk of a newlywed couple who haven't yet learned how to keep their hands off each other. They embrace and kiss only once, but it's heated enough to suggest that with these two, things are as bloody, brutal, and exciting in the bedroom as they are at court.

This time around, though, it's not so much the thirst for power that brings them together to commit multiple murders in their quest to take and keep the Scottish throne; the yearning for celebrity is even more potent. Director Moisés Kaufman has set this Macbeth around World War I, not coincidentally the time that worldwide superstardom (through the burgeoning medium of film) first became possible. You can easily imagine these Macbeths applying makeup for the newsreels, or putting aside a devastating argument long enough to keep a critical social engagement. (The latter is even represented here, with Macbeth's guilt over the deaths he's caused becoming for his wife less personally dangerous than publicly inconvenient.)

As the stack of bodies grows - counting Scottish king Duncan, lateral lord Banquo, and the family of suspecting Thane of Fife Macduff - for this first time you see this couple's inner collapses brought about by crumbling of their impeccably kept external façades. Ehle, for example, is so understated during Lady Macbeth's rambling struggle to scrub her skin of her complicity that it's like hearing these oft-quoted (and frequently mocked) lines for the first time: Is she truly concerned only because she can't apply the proper foundation over dried blood?

Hers is such an invigorating, smokingly fresh portrayal, that Kaufman's reluctance to invest equivalent originality in the rest of the production feels like a betrayal. But whenever Lord and Lady Macbeth aren't onstage, the action drops from a rolling boil to a bare simmer, with the artifice more visible and the pacing highly questionable. (Macbeth, Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and one of his shortest plays, should never clock in at nearly two and a half hours, as this one does.)

But in Derek McLane's burned-out mansion set, Michael Krass's barely specific costumes, and all of the other performances, nothing rises to match the suffusive ardor of the two leads. And at times it even seems that Kaufman wants to dampen that: He tries primarily through his main "invention" of transforming the three prophesying Weird Sisters (Joan Macintosh, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Lynn Cohen) into the Three Fates, who direct and choreograph all manner of living and dead in the play. (Kaufman has also effected some rearranging on their scenes and lines, including tweaking the ending, to give them a more ominously visible presence.)

Costumed as spirits, the Purgatory-bound ghosts of soldiers who died on the battlefield, the Sisters become responsible for the ghostly visions of the executed that increasingly torment Macbeth as the story unfolds. And when he sees that dagger before him, spurring him on to yet more killing in pursuit of power and title, the Sisters are right there (if hidden in plain sight via David Lander's lighting) holding it before him.

This is as distracting as it is unnecessary. If any young actor is capable of conjuring such evanescent images without mechanical assistance, it's Schreiber, the contemporary American theatre's answer to a Shakespeare superstar. In charting Macbeth's tortured and torturing journey from heroism and uncertainty to determination and eventually power-hungry madness, Schreiber employs a casual physical and vocal grace that strip from the role all the occasion and unnecessary baggage usually associated with it. His Macbeth is just a man, thrust into dastardly circumstances and trying to get what he can while the getting's good.

And with a wife like Ehle's, who can blame him? The scenes the two share pulse with a passion that utterly defeats Kaufman's attempts to bring the rest of the play down to (and, in the case of the Sisters, below) Earth. They vividly and effortlessly communicate the erotic seductiveness of power, whether in the form of taking another's life or in reveling in one's own physical attractiveness. Very little else in this Macbeth says even half as much.


Macbeth
Through July 9
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Pick up your free Shakespeare in the Park tickets on the day of the performance beginning at 1pm at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park or from 1 to 3pm at The Public Theater Box Office, 425 Lafayette Street.