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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Cymbeline and The Servant of Two Masters

Andrew Carlson and Silas Sellnow
Photo by Grace Hill
Great River Shakespeare Festival's staging of Macbeth is a huge production, with a big cast, complicated physical production, and soaring emotionalism. It is stunning. Director Paul Mason Barnes' bold and assured staging fills the proscenium of the Vivian Fusillo Theater, raging with unstoppable forces of unchecked ambition, lust, suspicion and retribution, culminating in an epic battle between law and chaos that is positively shattering.

The production begins in in a specter of greyness and grows steadily darker, marking Macbeth's ascent to the throne in tandem with his descent into unscrupulous violence and a fatal presumption of invincibility. The performances crisply demarcate each character's stake in unfolding plot, both in terms their positions of power and their moral and emotional soundness. The design team has wrought a unified vision where the setting, costumes, light and sound meld into a fully formed environment that encases the mortal characters acting out their parts in a wave of history.

That is not to say that the incidents in Macbeth are historically true. While the character is based on a real Macbeth, King of Scots, who ruled from 1040 to 1057 over an area considerably smaller than present-day Scotland, and Macduff, Duncan and Malcom were personages during that same era, the narrative woven by Shakespeare is a fiction. If the play, first performed in 1606, was intended to reflect an event, it is more likely to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy against the government of Shakespeare's patron, King James I, a Protestant, for which Jesuit priest Henry Garnet was executed.

The play begins with a report to King Duncan of Scotland that Macbeth, who is the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo have defeated the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, who were led by the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. The King, to whom Macbeth is a kinsman, praises his general's bravery. Shortly after, Macbeth and Banquo encounter a trio of witches in the woods, who tell Macbeth he is destined to become Thane of Cawdor and then King. They tell Banquo that, though his own fortunes will not rise, he will father a line of future kings. The two men scoff at these prophecies, but when Macbeth learns that the Thane of Cawdor has been killed and that for his role in the defeat he is newly named Thane of Cawdor and Glamis both, he begins to believe.

Macbeth shares the witches' words with his wife, who seizes the opportunity to realize her own ambitions and drives him to follow through by any means necessary. Macbeth is unresolved, but when King Duncan names his son Malcom, rather than Macbeth, as next in line for the throne, he is drawn into his wife's treachery. First one murder, then others to cover up the first, spiral into an out-of-control wave of greed and paranoia-fueled violence. Once he is king, Macbeth realizes that to gain power is one thing, to hold it quite another. He seeks further illumination from the witches and takes their prophecies as assurance of his invincibility, failing to consider possibilities beyond his own ken.

Macbeth raises a number of questions regarding the nature of its title character's undoing. Is it unbridled ambition that brings him down, or is it his failure to trust in the fate foretold him by the witches and allow life take its natural course rather than claw at his current circumstance, as if only by his own desperate acts will the witches' vision be realized? Further, he is undermined by shortsightedness, seeing his rise to king as the pinnacle of life, failing to see how fearsome it will be to protect that stature from usurpers (real or imagined) and from the demons of his own guilt for the means by which he rose.

There is also the question of Lady Macbeth's involvement, for she goads him from the very start to have no patience and take drastic action, with no thought to consequence. If anything, her ambition far exceeds his. Would Macbeth have acted without her ferocious drive? She is a strong Shakespearean woman, but with strength that misguides her toward catastrophe.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are fully realized in the performances of Andrew Carlson and Leah Gabriel. Carlson projects Macbeth's initial caution, his reluctance to push too hard to bring forth the witches' vision, stating "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me." In the course of events he becomes ever more persuaded that everything he does is ordained to be what must be done. Why else would the witches tell him he is invincible, as he interprets their second prophesy? In his final battle, Carlson's Macbeth displays the certitude of one who believes himself chosen for glory.

Gabriel takes Lady Macbeth on the opposite journey, flush with certainty at the start and telling her husband to "Screw your courage to the sticking point." When he is unsteady, she is willing to do hideous deeds, only to fall apart as guilt and fear steer her to madness. Gabriel's presentation of the mad scene, with its famous "Out, out, damn spot!" is frightening, and a bit heartbreaking, as Lady Macbeth seems to grasp far too late how she has been fatally wounded by her own flawed nature. In Carlson and Gabriel's first scene together, their piqued ambitions take on a sensuality that further fans the flames of the evil to come.

The ensemble works as one to maintain the onrush of action, bringing clarity and force to each characterization. Christopher Gerson is particularly stirring as Macduff, challenger to Macbeth's tyranny, and Tarah Flanagan does exquisite work in the small role of Lady Macduff. Blake Henri as Ross, Daniel Stewart as Angus, and Benjamin Boucvalt as Banquo are other standouts. The three witches are portrayed by Anique Clemens, Victoria Nassif and Silas Sellnow, made otherworldly both by the delivery of their lines and their grotesque appearance, with credit to hair and makeup supervisor Mary Capers. They state their prophecies in a straightforward manner, not as a call to action, but as matters of course. It is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's choices that turn those statements into their own death sentences.

Kyle Schellinger's darkly shaded costumes, R. Eric Stone's vault-like stage setting, with its ingenious representation of Burnham Wood, the storms and battles conjured by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's lighting, and Scott O'Brien's sound design work together to create a paradoxical sense of a life that is both sumptuous and ferociously menacing. Only O'Brien's musical score is a bit too ponderous, conjuring images of a cable television series.

Macbeth is being staged in rotation with Cymbeline and The Servant of Two Masters on Great River Shakespeare's mainstage, the Vivian Fusillo Theater. All three are splendid productions, but of the three, Macbeth is the most wholly artistically realized. The other two shows are certainly more fun, as there is not a flea's wing of mirth in Macbeth, and Barnes succeeds in maintaining a sense of moral vacuum, where "Fair is foul and foul is fair."

My recommendation is to see all three. However, if you must choose, Macbeth fully delivers on the power in Shakespeare's words, the construction of his narratives, and their timeless themes. Here, the theme of ambition run amok, unchecked by a moral compass, is all too pertinent to today's world. This production of Macbeth is evidence that Shakespeare's work is an enduring cornerstone of human civilization.

Macbeth, through August 4, 2019, at Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $49.00; Students: $10.00 - $15.00. Discount Pass for all three mainstage shows area available. For schedule of performances and other event, and for tickets, call 507-474-7900 or visit

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Paul Mason Barnes; Assistant Director: Ethan Graham Roeder; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Assistant Lighting Designer: Avery Reagan; Costume Design: Kyle Schellinger; Assistant Costume Designer: John Merritt; Sound Design and Composer: Scott O'Brien; Properties Supervisor: Ivy Thomas; Text Coach: Bryan Hunt; Fight Choreographer: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Intimacy Director: Tom Ringberg; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Assistant Stage Manager: Hannah Steele..

Cast: Gracie Belt (Donalbain/Attendant/Apparition), Benjamin Boucvalt (Banquo/Caithness), Emma Bucknam (Gentlewoman/Macduff child), Colin Cada (Fleance/Apparition), Andrew Carlson (Macbeth), Lyda Carlson (Macduff child), Anique Clements (Witch/Servant/2nd murderer/Gentlewoman), Michael Fitzpatrick (Duncan/Mentieth/Apparition), Tarah Flanagan (Lady Macduff), Leah Gabriel (Lady Macbeth), Anne Galke (Gentlewoman/Macduff child), Christopher Gerson (Macduff), Alex Givens (Malcom/Apparition), Oscar Heckman (Macduff child), Sergio Heckman (Macduff child), Blake Henri (Ross), Jackson Mixon (Young Siwawrd/Soldier), Victoria Nassif (Witch/Servant/1stmurderer/ Doctor) De'Onna Prince (Lennox), Silas Sellnow (Witch/Seyton), Daniel Stewart (Angus/Apparition), William Sturdivant (Bloody captain/Siward).

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