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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

Macbeth
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Macbeth
Joseph Cannon and
Timothy D. Stickney

There are a lot of ways to go with a production of Macbeth but Paul Mason Barnes makes a strong argument for getting back to the basics. His production, now playing on the Mainstage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is a strong ensemble performance punctuated by solos, i.e. soliloquies, which honors Shakespeare's text while also making good use of modern theatre technology.

The set by Michael Ganio is a bare-boards thrust stage set at an odd angle to the audience with an equally off-kilter polygon suspended above, providing a ceiling of sorts. The stage is surrounded by several blood-red ramps and stairways and the backdrop is an array of (apparently) loose boards resting on two crossed cables. This setup provides the opportunity for multiple planes of action and allows the large cast to get on and off stage quickly. It also provides a canvas for some marvelously effective lighting by Kenton Yeager, particularly in the scenes involving the witches and in the final battle scene. All the furniture used in the play consists of portable chairs, tables constructed quickly onstage from boards and saw-horses—and the pace is so snappy so that scenes almost overlap with one set of characters leaving the stage while another is arriving.

That's not a complaint—in fact, I wish more companies planning Shakespeare productions would take note. Simple staging is a good choice not only because it is historically correct but also because it throws the emphasis on Shakespeare's words which, after all, are the main reason we keep performing his plays. My first concern in evaluating any performance of Shakespeare is whether the text is well-served by the production. In this case it is and with that as a basis all the other good things about the production just make it better. If the actors can't handle the text and/or the audience can't hear it then all the projections and acrobatics and whatever else a director may throw on stage are really beside the point.

There are so many good performances in this Macbeth that it's hard to know where to begin, or where to end, in singling actors out. Timothy D. Stickney in the title role is a magnificent leading man, although I found him a bit ordinary in the opening scenes; he gets far more interesting as his character begins to stray from the straight and narrow, and has his greatest moments when his character has descended into madness. Jerry Vogel is a suitably majestic Duncan (and does a fine job doubling the role of Menteith as well). James Michael Reed shows the full range of emotions as Macduff, and Ben Nordstrom as Malcolm is absolutely convincing in his transformation from an eldest son lacking in confidence to an adult ready to lead the nation.

Nancy Bell is a heartbreaking Lady Macduff (and she doubles as Angus) and the young actors playing the Macduff children (Alex Donovan, Maria Knasel, Drew Redington, Julia Schweizer and Elizabeth Teeter) are all wonderfully natural in their brief moments on stage. The only role I really have a problem with is Caris Vujcec's take on Lady Macbeth. When we first meet the Lady it's not clear who she is supposed to be, and I only felt a strong characterization emerging as the character gave herself over more and more to her murderous ambitious. Her mad scene, however, is a thing of beauty which is both restrained and touching and indicates the dangers of meddling with the natural order of things.

Costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis are eclectic modern: the men wear combat fatigues with leather accessories, and various small differences (e.g., type of boot) indicate their roles and ranks. The highest-ranking characters get wool overcoats which, unfortunately, veer off into Sergeant Pepper territory, particularly Macbeth's red and gold number. The women wear long plain dresses, a choice which works well for Lady Macduff (who is sort of an earth mother figure anyway) but not so well for Lady Macbeth, who when we first meet her seems like a refugee from a Santa Fe commune rather than the ambitious wife of a successful general. When she becomes queen she gets a magnificent red dress which suitably indicates her descent into bloody treachery as well as her rise in rank.

There is a lot of role doubling and cross-dressing in this production and it works perfectly well. Why shouldn't a witch be played by a man or a murderer by a woman? The play itself is preceded by an introduction of characters, something I haven't seen before, which is presumably meant to help the audience keep the actors playing multiple roles straight. It isn't necessary (it's easy enough to follow the action even if you can't remember the name of each character) but perhaps is more welcome for audience members new to the play (Macbeth was the first Shakespeare we studied in school and I wouldn't be surprised if that is true in many other school systems as well).

There is one oddity in the staging which detracts from what is overall a splendid production. The fights are done in a slow-motion, stagey style (punches missing by a mile, combatants striking poses) which contradicts the otherwise very unfussy feel of the performance. Two fight directors are credited for this production—couldn't they come up with something a little more exciting?

Those few minor quibbles aside, this is an excellent production which should delight everyone from kids attracted by the occult features to adults who just want to see a good performance of a classic play. It runs about 2 hours 45 minutes with intermission.

Macbeth will continue at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 6. Ticket information is available at www.repstl.org/season/alltickets, by calling 314-968-4925 or in person from the box office at the Loretto-Hilton Center.

Cast:
Macbeth: Timothy D. Stickney
Lady Macbeth: Caris Vujcec
Duncan/Menteith: Jerry Vogel
Malcolm: Ben Nordstrom
Donalbain: Greg Fink
Banquo/Caithness: Jason Cannon
Fleance: Kyle Acheson
Ross: Christopher Hickey
Lennox: Chris Bolan
Macduff: Michael James Reed
Lady Macduff/Angus: Nancy Bell
Captain/Siward: Nathaniel McIntyre
Young Siward/Soldier: Michael Curtin
Witch/Murderer/Servant/Doctor: Michael Keyloun
Witch/Murderer/Servant/Gentlewoman: Shanara Gabrielle
Witch/Porter/Seyton: David Graham Jones
Macduff Children: Alex Donovan, Maria Knasel, Drew Redington, Julia Schweizer, Elizabeth Teeter
Ensemble: Hillary Brainerd, Jake Golliher, Scott Joy, Scears Lee IV, McKenna Liesman, Colton Pometta

Crew
Director: Paul Mason Barnes
Scenic Designer: Michael Ganio
Costume Designer: Dorothy Marshall Englis
Lighting Designer: Kenton Yeager
Sound Designer: Rusty Wandall
Fight Directors: Brian A. Peters, Shaun Sheley
Casting Director: Rich Cole
Child Casting: Carrie Houk, C.S.A.
Stage Manager: Glenn Dunn
Assistant Stage Manager: Shannon B. Sturgis


Photo: Eric Woolsey


-- Sarah Boslaugh

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