There is one unmistakable harridan in Chicago's newest Macbeth, one malevolent woman so drunk with her own murderous ambition, that I will never forget her role in this immortal tragedybut sadly that woman is not up there on stage. She is director (and Artistic Director and Company Founder) Barbara Gaines. By the end of the show, she's snuffed-out just about everyone in the play, and Bill Shakespeare too, with her unquenchable lust to create one of those "brilliant artistic visions," the kind that is guaranteed to send an audience home with a searing headache. Now admittedly, the lovely Karen Aldridge (as Lady Macbeth) is very tempting in her contribution, and Ben Carlson (as Macbeth) gets a few opportunities to really shine, too. But most of their castmates end up being crushed under the weight of countless flashy contrivances, making this one of those shows they'll commiserate about for years and years to come.
And, to be honest, I got up at intermission thinking it all quite brilliant. Most importantly, the action in act one was suited to the word (though the reverse will later be true); and I admired the laser-pointer targeting in the opening combat scene, and also the witches as paparazzi, who are truly frightening early on. Ms. Aldridge, though not particularly fearsome, is quite earthy and sensual, and hosts an absolutely dazzling, perfectly staged cocktail party before the murder of King Duncan. So I will say, "If you see one half of any one play this year, see the first half of Chicago Shakespeare's Macbeth!" And then beat a path to the exits.
It's all sound and fury after that, as director Gaines slips into overdrive, trying to channel Baz Luhrmann, and artistic brilliance turns to brutish, over-budgeted braggadocio. We return from intermission to find ourselves in a sleazy, flashy stripper bar for reasons that eluded me, and at least one of the characters on stage, too: "Things have been strangely born," he observes, bewildered, seeming to realize that the show's gone irretrievably off the rails. I could only laugh at his inadvertent truth-telling, watching him at the edge of the bar, where the story had been cast aside like the butt of a cigarette. But there's worse to come, and the burdens we will have borne get stranger and stranger. Crotch-thrusting witches (strippers in bondage regalia, of course) are suddenly tasked with turning "boil, boil, toil and trouble" into a pretentious rock-opera, ending with a piping solo by young Fleance. And later, Macduff's children play a rousing game of Guitar Hero, just so some poor schmo can come out a moment later and reprove them for "rocking the very ground" (in a case of the word being cynically twisted to suit a new action for a cheap laugh). Clearly, this show needs less giddy "brain-storming" behind the scenes, and more trust and reliance placed in the text and actors, all of whom are simply plowed under by the Chicago Shakespeare production team. The sad fact is that you could put on at least five very good productions of Macbeth (each glorifying both the verse and its bearers) for all the cash they burn through in this one ultimately ridiculous effort. Criminal.
One of the script's assassins makes an entrance into the Macduff household, slicing through a paper wall like a comic Samurai and oh-oh-oh! (I forgot the best part from the stripper bar scene!): one of the witches cuts a bloody "fetus doll" out of the belly of another, in a needless reminder of the very famous prophesy from that very impressive first act. This ghastly and bizarre bit of business only brings howls of derision from the audience, as the wiggly, prematurely-delivered doll drips chocolate syrup and red dye on stage. I suppose this gag may be unavoidable, considering the witches' voices are all so electronically distorted that no Shakespearean novice would ever discern, in act one, the prophesy that Macbeth can't be killed by any man "born of woman." It also presages Macduff's later announcement about being 'untimely ripped' from his mother's womb. But there's still a pretty heavy and distinct line between shock and disgust, even though Ms. Gaines has managed to overlook it completely. There's also an old saying that 'when you bring a gun on stage in a play, it suddenly becomes a play about a gun.' Perhaps we should make an addendum to that, saying 'when you bring an unborn baby Macduff dripping chocolate sauce onto the stage, it suddenly becomes a play about an unborn baby Macduff dripping chocolate sauce onto the stage.' Show of hands?
The whole show is like an evening with the anti-Christ: the first three and a half years are just wonderful, and the whole world should rejoice at their coming. The second three and a half are pure Tribulation, though, and not in a good way, either. Back in that late, lamented first half (for example), the ghost of Banquo (Danforth Comins) makes a truly fabulous projected appearance in the dinner scene, pushing Ben Carlson (in the title role) to outstanding depths of guilt. But then, in an absolute negation of all Ms. Gaines' obvious gifts, Mr. Carlson must later witness Banquo again in act two, in Navy dress whites, before a backdrop of spinning mirrors with flashing lights. Strangely, this one ridiculous disco image is actually supported by the text, with its reference to multiple Banquos (his descendents), and the spinning mirrors do echo this word picturebut it's just absurd in the realization: another crass upstaging of Mr. Shakespeare, this time by way of Mamma Mia!.
It would be nice to be able to cite various stand-out actors, and they all appeared to be quite competent, but, unfortunately, they are utterly hemmed-in by Ms. Gaines, who (like Steven Spielberg) insists that all performers be ciphers with narrow, brash line-readings to keep the spotlight on her technical fireworks, and her back-sliding into 19th century spectacle. In the end, it's just another case of bad management, and this particular manager's "style" strangling all substance, fresh out of the birth canal. I know I've said it before, but if a director doesn't trust the material she's chosen, or can't trust the actors she's cast, or won't trust the audience she's drawn, maybe the problem's not with her material, or her actors, or her audience at all.
Some theater companies actually like to insert a well-grounded member of the board inside each production as an "assistant director," to quietly keep tabs on the project from day to day. I heartily recommend such a "keeper" for Ms. Gaines at all times in the future.
Through March 8, 2009 at the Shakespeare Theater inside the Navy Pier, off Grand and Lake Shore Drive. For more information, call (312) 595-5600 or visit them on-line at www.chicagoshakes.com.
* Denotes member, Actors' Equity
Photo by Liz Lauren