Also see Robert's review of Lobby Hero
After 28 years, the Black Repertory Company has tackled its very first Shakespeare. Given the admirable results, you may well ask "what took them so long?" Set outside a lofty Sudanese castle, this fine production makes just a few unforgivable mistakes and also hits many unexpected bulls-eyes.
Critic Kenneth Tynan once complained that Macbeth is "unique among the tragedies, in that none of the leading characters ever mentions sexuality." Director Fontaine Syer dares to correct Shakespeare's oversight, inserting numerous loving kisses between her leads (David Alan Anderson and Elizabeth Van Dyke) when they first meet on stage. It's a cagey move: Syer has given her actors the rattling effect of added humanity, freeing them to explore new depths.
Critics also brand the gloomy Thane a cipher, at least until act five. Here, Mr. Anderson is an excellent driving force throughout the show. The surprise brought on by Ms. Van Dyke is that she's not the iron lady we love to hate. Be not afraid; the suspenseful feeling that "something's missing" from this Lady Macbeth is abruptly snuffed-out when she collapses with a chilling wail, right before intermission. It's a breath-taking moment, at mid-voyage.
Ms. Van Dyke doles out the utmost loyalty to the lines, giving rise to a Lady M. who's simply faithful to her husband, despite her growing sense of panic. Later, this develops into a kind of secret obsessive-compulsive disorder, which suddenly seems infinitely natural. Have generations of Macbeths till now merely been riding on their wives' whipping skirts?
This Macbeth won't just hang around, waiting for his wife to gorgonize the masses. Instead, Mr. Anderson finds thrilling dimensions in his own march to fate, dogged by the ululations of the witches (led by Susie Wall, with something akin to glam-rock flair). The Black Rep audience giggled a bit more than seemed prudent, especially when Mr. Anderson was plagued by an unseen dagger, or more notably, by an unseen Banquo's ghost. However, their laughter could not diminish his tour de force.
You have to revolve on why, exactly, Banquo's ghost stays in the Green Room in act four, scene one. The question rises because Black Rep founder and Producing Director Ron Himes, as the "living" Banquo, is strangely plodding and uncommitted on stage. Is he too busy later, when the Bard requires his ghostly apparition to appear? Or did director Syer choose to emphasize the innate madness of Macbeth by making the ghost's entrance as imaginary as that dagger? The latter possibility does little to account for Mr. Himes' evident disinterest.
Two of the best-known actors in town, along with Mr. Himes, turn in curiously exanimate efforts: John Contini plays a kindly but anemic King Duncan. He seems to have come to the Scottish throne by way of the periodontist across the moors, owing to some unfortunate gum ailment. If Mr. Contini actually underwent oral surgery that day, his light-headed performance should readily be excused.
Likewise, the highly recognizable Whit Reichert makes a sophomoric, unimaginative night watchman. It's a disappointing choice, considering Walter Martz's recent hilarious cameo in the role on the very same stage for the St. Louis Shakespeare Company.
Elsewhere, the fight scenes are half-hearted, and one or two minor characters are allowed to indulge in the "evil laugh" that was probably ridiculous well before the advent of the 19th century melodrama.
On the other hand, Mr. Anderson's churning paddlewheel of a chuckle inspires real foreboding. And Eddie Webb is great as his nemesis, the captain and commander MacDuff, whether wondering about Macbeth's next step, or standing in stunned disbelief at the news of his own family's slaughter. It's mainly the thoughtfulness of Mr. Anderson, Mr. Webb, and director Syer that sweeps us into this old chestnut anew.
J. Samuel Davis, L.A. Williams and Richon May are equally fine in supporting roles while A.C. Smith is first-rate as a "bloody soldier" and later as the doctor. A young man with a million-dollar voice, Deondra (Kamau) Means, does nicely in the role of a bodyguard.
Not as bloody, this Macbeth, nor as dark as recent revivals here. But there is a strange modern tribal realism that makes Africa a fine replacement for Scotland. Marie Anne Chiment, the thoughtful set and costume designer, does everything beautifully, with glittering robes, layered undershirts, wide golden bracelets, and even modern sunglasses for the Sudanese murderers. But she may have taken a single "Golgotha" reference in the script too much to heart, littering the stage with piles of human skulls. (Perhaps these were the decorations of a previous Lady Macbeth.) The complex and evocative lighting design is by Jim Burwinkel. Meanwhile, Ms. Syer's relentlessly perfect sorties of actors sweeping on and off the battlements, along with the delightfully different balance of powers on stage, are a much-needed breath of Spring.
Macbeth continues through April 6th (2005) at the Grandel Theatre, in Mid-Town St. Louis (3610 Grandel Square). For ticket information, call (314) 534-3810.