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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of She Went to War and Arty's review of The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin

Vanessa Wasche and Michael Ooms
Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare's masterworks, and among the all-time great works of the dramatic canon. Yet it can be a difficult play to pull off. It is a tale of naked ambition riddled with irrational violence that can keep an audience at a distance. The central character agonizes over his evil deeds, but offers little that elicits sympathy or hope of redemption. Then there is the legendary curse that surrounds the play, the superstition among theater folks that cause some to call it "the Scottish play," rather than utter its name. It is, then, all the more gratifying that Park Square has mounted an outstanding production of Macbeth.

No doubt Macbeth's best known scene is the three witch-like "Sisters" in the woods, conjuring up visions of what is to be with the refrain "Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble." In fact, they put story in motion earlier in the play by telling Macbeth, a Scottish general returning from military victory, that he will be named Thane of Cawdor, and afterward become King of Scotland. Macbeth scoffs at their improbable prophesy, but moments later he learns that the Thane of Cawdor has been a traitor and King Duncan has bestowed that title on Macbeth. Macbeth writes ahead to his wife, telling her everything. Her response is a firestorm of ambition. Certain her husband will be king, it will not do to wait for the natural order of events to bring that about. Macbeth must become king at once, which means that Duncan must be murdered. Lady Macbeth forces her ambition upon her husband, putting in question his manhood should he not comply.

Macbeth does become king, but all is not yet well. One murderous plot begets another, leading to a string of deaths, escapes, and shifting alliances. Returning to the three Sisters to learn more, Macbeth is given three pronouncements—beware the nobleman Macduff, he will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and no man born of woman can do harm to him. The first provokes the brutal slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children, an act of cruelty aimed at ensnaring her husband. The second pronouncements give Macbeth a sense of protection that, like everything about Macbeth's ambitions, proves to be an illusion.

Jef Hall-Flavin's adaptation trims the play down to a swift 110 minutes, with intermission. He directs with the rapid-fire pace of a graphic novel, drawing on visuals to complement the text, while keeping the course of action straight and clear. Even though most audience members will know how the story ends (it's a Shakespearean tragedy, how many choices are there?), Hall-Flavin maintains a rising line of suspense throughout. The suspense is not so much about guessing what will happen, but about how deeply Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will hurt and, perhaps, feel remorse before the end comes to them.

Michael Ooms is marvelous as Macbeth. His resonant voice expresses his grip of power, yet he imbeds veins of ambivalence and doubt below the surface, even as he ratchets up his nerve to do the most heinous deeds. He starts with physical strength, vigor and lustiness which drains out of him as he is racked by guilt, fear and loss. By the end, his body sags and retreats inward. He is well matched by Vanessa Wasche as Lady Macbeth, superb as the engine that drives her husband's evil ambition. Wasche is a marvel at pivoting from a gracious hostess entertaining nobility at Dunsinane Castle to a viper egging Macbeth on to murder, before turning back to pour drinks. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have mad scenes, each played with rapt intensity by Ooms and Wasche not overly histrionic, but conveying the horrifying chaos into which their minds have fallen.

All the rest of the players provide strong support, though Shakespeare does not endow any of the other characters with much depth. Other than Ooms, the actors play multiple roles, but with clarity as to who they are in each given scene. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil seems a notch overly cheerful as Banquo, the friend and military comrade who Macbeth comes to fear, but that cheeriness makes Banquo all the more frightening when seen later in the play. Laura Esping impresses with strength and sorrow in Lady Macduff's one scene. Esping, Wasche, and Neal Beckman play the three Sisters more as objective tellers of truth than as trying to terrify (though, of course, the truth can at times terrify). One alteration in this adaptation is to have Lady Macbeth come to warn Lady Macduff of impending calamity. In the original text this is done by a character simply called "messenger." Giving that part to Lady Macbeth casts her in a different light as the house of cards she had masterminded tumbles down.

Scenic designer Joseph Stanley has kept the Boss Thrust Stage open, except for a model castle tower, about waist high, that places us in the 12th century and also serves as the three Sisters' cauldron. The stage floor is marked with what could be trails through the thick Scottish woods. Sarah Bahr's costumes lack the elaboration often seen in period plays. They resemble contemporary wear, but with just enough flourish to place us in the historic era of the play, suggesting that these characters from ages past would be not so out of place today. Evan Middlesworth does especially superb work composing driving, suspense-driven underscoring that intensifies the scenes and hastens transitions, as well as ever present sounds—a trumpet announcing visitors; the sound of a court dinner off stage while Macbeth ruminates on stage; sounds of different birds, each a comment on a characters state of mind; the sound of off stage violence and of full-throttled battle—that make a major contribution to the production. Michael P. Kittel's lighting places much of the action in near-darkness, adding to the foreboding, though never obscuring our vision. Fight choreographer Doug Scholz-Carlson has staged several well-played fight scenes, including one of the best sword duels I have seen on stage in a long time.

The aspect of Macbeth that makes it truly a tragedy is the inability of its central characters to let the natural course of things occur. The three Sisters' prophecy that Macbeth will be king did not state that he had to murder the current king. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer from absence of any patience, and lack of faith that if meant to be, it will be, without requiring them to become cutthroats. Could the three Sisters have known the impact their words would have on this husband and wife? Arguably, as they see what lies ahead, they could see this, yet delivered their prophecy, with no moral reservation about its outcome. Had they not spoken, what might have driven Lady Macbeth's urgent thirst for power and given Macbeth the stomach to slaughter innocents? An alternate universe in which the Sisters withhold their prophesy, and then allows events at Dunsinane to unfold is a tantalizing notion.

For now, we have Shakespeare's version of the tragic tale in a high-energy, skillfully wrought mounting by Park Square. Whether your first or fifth Macbeth, this production deserves your attention.

Macbeth continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through April 9, 2017. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00; age 30 and under: $21.00; seniors age 62: $5.00 discount; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 cash only starting one hour before performance time for remaining seats. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to

Writer: William Shakespeare; Adapted and Directed by: Jef Hall-Flavin; Scenic Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Composer and Sound Design: Evan Middlesworth; Properties Designer: Sarah Ward; Fight Choreographer: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty

Cast: Gabriele Angieri (King Duncan, Porter, Lord, Doctor), Neal Beckman (Ross, Sister, murderer), Laura Esping (Lady Macduff, Lennox, Sister, gentlewoman), Gary Geiken (Macduff, Angus, murderer), Michael Ooms (Macbeth), Naveh Shavit-Lonstein (Fleance, Macduff's son, Seyton), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (Banquo, Siward), Vanessa Wasche (Lady Macbeth, Sister), Guillermo Rodriguez ZermeƱo (Malcom, servant).

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