Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Dunsinane, written by David Greig and directed with imagination by Jasson Minadakis and Rob Lufty, picks up where one of Shakespeare's cruelest and bloodiest plays, Macbeth, left off: Malcolm (Josh Odsess-Rubin), having defeated Macbeth, rests unsteadily on the throne, in part because in this version, Lady Macbeth, here known as Gruach (Lisa Anne Porter), did not kill herself and has her own claim on power for her and her son, whom she has sent into hiding.
Enter an English army, led by Siward (Aldo Billingslea), who come under cover of darkness to take advantage of the chaos left by Macbeth in order to overwhelm Scotland and unite the two kingdoms. The army seems to be composed mostly of young boys (played in great part by the youthful members of the Conservatory Theatre Ensemble), who rue their time in the cold north and write home to their mothers about their suffering and the atrocities they witness.
General Siward claims his goal is to bring peace to Scotland, but he has a funny way of going about it–torching villages and executing locals. Destroying the village to save it, anyone? Besides, his royal prisoner Gruach informs him "We had peace–until you came along." Not to mention that Egham [Daniel Duque-Estrada], one of Siward's lieutenants, finds Siward's practice of burning alive men who stand in his way to be overly cruel. "It's a bit Scandinavian, isn't it?" he opines.
Over the course of a year, Siward works with Macduff (Michael Ray Wisely) to unite the warring clans of Scotland (who are, as Siward is told, "fighting us because we're stopping them from fighting each other") by traveling the countryside and bringing the clan chiefs together to be persuaded to accept Malcolm as their king.
As played by Odsess-Rubin, Malcolm may seem impotent at first, resorting to snarky comments and allowing Siward to pursue his war unchallenged. But by Act Two we will discover just how cunning the somewhat fey, self-absorbed would-be-king can be. When he tells the assembled chiefs that "I will govern entirely in the interest of me," it seems politically inept, but there is method to his egotism. (The line put me in mind of a recent statement made by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about our current political situation: "If they do not want it to be your vote that determines who is in power, it means they don't want to have to use power to try to meet your needs, to try and earn your vote.") There is also method to Odsess-Rubin's portrayal of King Malcolm (and Grieg's characterization of him): by playing him as an entitled, self-absorbed neophyte who cracks wise, we are tempted to underestimate him. And we do, until he reveals his deeper, more strategic plans.
There are powerful themes at work here: the horrors of occupation, the cruelty and chaos of war, the lust for power and riches, the way war wreaks its greatest havoc on the weakest and least powerful–all of which make Dunsinane a rich allegory for multiple aspects of contemporary political life.
Fortunately, the core cast illuminate these themes through powerful portrayals. Porter's Gruach is especially compelling, a saucy, puissant woman born to power and clinging to it with whitening knuckles. Over the course of her life she has learned just how to get what she wants, and Porter inhabits this sense of privilege with a hauteur that feels eminently earned. As Malcolm, Odsess-Rubin will put you in mind of Scotland's own Alan Cumming, with a perfect Scottish accent and his offbeat approach to kingliness. The teens are also marvelous. Though still developing as performers, their youth serves to remind us of the toll war takes on those at the bottom rung of authority's ladder.
Dunsinane may lack the visual violence of "Game of Thrones" (the swords and daggers are mere dowels, and there is no free-flowing stage blood), but it has all the scheming, plotting, revenge and cruelty one could desire–though in a much more realistic, though historically removed, setting.
Dunsinane runs through October 16, 2022, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit marintheatre.org, or call the box office at 415-388-5208.