Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Arden Theatre

Ian Merrill Peakes
For five years now, Alexander Burns has been building a solid reputation directing classical drama at Quintessence Theatre, a small, low-budget company located in Mount Airy, a Philadelphia neighborhood miles away from the city's cultural epicenter. But now Burns has graduated to the big time, directing a big and bold production of Macbeth downtown at the Arden Theatre. It's flashy, but it has a lot of depth, too, and it's anchored by rich, nuanced performances by Ian Merrill Peakes and Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Scotland's most wanted couple. If it isn't a perfect Macbeth, well, it's a perfectly audacious one, which should count for something.

Burns takes a cinematic approach to Shakespeare's story, aided greatly by the Arden's top-notch design team. For instance, James Sugg's pulsing sound design punctuates the soliloquies with musical stings and sound effects at key moments. (It's rare to hear nearly wall-to-wall scoring in a theatrical production, which is one of the cinematic touches that work so well.) Brian Sidney Bembridge's circular, cobblestone stage resembles a dungeon, and Solomon Weisbard's subdued lighting adds to the sense of mystery. Rosemarie E. McKelvey's costumes are both unified (military fatigues and all-black ensembles for Macbeth and his troops during the war scenes) and varied (a series of gowns for Lady Macbeth that are elegant without being ostentatious). And Paul Dennhardt's fight choreography is pretty darn thrilling, with swordfights that bookend the story's action.

Yet this isn't a faultless Macbeth. Burns fiddles with the text a bit, in ways that might give Shakespearean purists pause. Some of the alterations work, such as a newly added wordless coronation scene for King Macbeth. Others make things smoother, like changing a scene set at a banquet into one set at a masked ball; this provides a good deal of interesting stage action, as well as evoking the masked ball scene in Romeo and Juliet. But expanding the play's one scene of comic relief by adding a tedious, witless monologue for the Porter (Christopher Patrick Mullen)—complete with audience interaction and even knock-knock jokes—reeks of self-indulgence.

Then there's the director's use of violence. At various points in this production we see murders being committed aggressively, and even when the killings take place offstage, there's a lot of blood left over. Nothing really wrong with that; after all, Macbeth is a play about a ruthless murderer, and the killings are all part of Shakespeare's text. And hey, a little stage blood never hurt anybody, right? But there's such a thing as being too shocking. It's one thing to show the death of Macduff's son; it's another to see blood spurting out of his body—especially when he's played by a seventh grader (the excellent Yannick Hayes). It's a surprisingly tasteless moment.

Peakes' Macbeth is a fierce warrior to the world at large, but plagued with self-doubt in his private moments. Peakes plays both sides of Macbeth's personality with uncommon force. Clarke's Lady Macbeth also commands the stage—she's a good match for Peakes in energy and intensity (and their low, smoky voices are a good match, too). We get to see these two drive each other to heights of both rapture and terror—their scenes together have a tremendous erotic charge. The rest of Burns' cast also displays great authority and diction, notably Josh Carpenter as the would-be king Malcolm, as well as Ben Dibble, Terence MacSweeny, Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Aimé Donna Kelly.

All in all, despite a few questionable lapses, this is an excellent, exciting take on Macbeth—well-designed, well-directed and well-acted. It takes a lot of chances, and most of them pay off very well.

Macbeth runs through April 19, 2015, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$50 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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