Macbeth (September 8-11, 2005)

Theatre Artists offer spellbinding ‘Macbeth’

Originally published in The Tacoma News Tribune

“Macbeth,” the play that actors dare not speak its name, is one of William Shakespeare’s more difficult creations. The last time I saw it was 21/2 hours of sheer drudgery. But the performance by Theatre Artists Olympia at Olympia Little Theatre is intense and spellbinding. It is theatricality at a fever pitch.

Granted, there are some dull moments. Some of the long-winded monologues are wearying. But, as director Pug Bujeaud said, Act I is all setup; after that it gets exciting.

Lest the above statement creates the impression that the first hour and a half is nothing but dull exposition, may I remind you that this so-called stage setting includes supernatural beings, two murders and some nefarious plotting (not to mention passionate lovemaking) between Macbeth and his wife.

Performed in the round, the stage is a stark and simple black floor with a few scattered black boxes and a transparent black screen for a backdrop. Red smears representing blood run from front to back. The play begins with ominous drumming offstage. The lights go down, and when they come back up, we see the deadly remains of a battlefield, bloodied soldiers dead on the ground, one a mere child, another severely wounded but alive. Enter the three witches (Harriet Rajala, Heather Christopher and Erika Fiebig), whose prophecy that Macbeth will become king of Scotland sets in motion the plot to murder the good King Duncan (James Thomas Patrick).

The director and designers understand the importance of getting the right look, which shows not only in little quirks of costuming and lighting, but in casting actors who have the right physical characteristics for their parts. For instance, Patrick’s flowing silver hair and beard make for the perfect image of a kindly king, Christina Collins’ blond hair and big eyes are just right for the haunted Lady Macbeth, and a very handsome Michael Christopher, who happens to have purple hair, plays the avenging hero, Macduff. The significance of the hair coloring is that all of the costumes have elements that lift them out of the time frame of the play, thus creating a timeless quality: Macbeth and most of the soldiers looked like refugees from Mad Max movies, one of the child actors wears modern sneakers and Lady Macduff’s servant girl wears a dress right off the rack from a contemporary department store.

The look is enhanced with smoke and dramatic lighting in the scene with the witches stirring the cauldron and by the use of lighting to allow the audience to see Banquo’s ghost behind the black screen and to see Macbeth plotting offstage behind the same screen. Lighting designers Tom Sanders and Michael Christopher deserve special credit.

Chris Cantrell plays Macbeth. Many will remember him for his comical stint as Falstaff in the Lakewood Playhouse production of “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Here, he displays the same exuberance but uses it for dramatic rather than comic effect. Cantrell is a big man with big gestures and a loud voice (almost too loud for the small theater). In the early scenes, he is blustery and arrogant (and thoroughly unlikable), but underneath his bluster is a confused man who does not know right from wrong and who is easily manipulated by his wife.

Collins plays Lady Macbeth as a wily and coquettish vamp who wraps her husband around her little finger and who later becomes a tortured psychotic.

Finally, the director displayed a bit of wit and mischievousness by casting a woman in the role of the Porter (supposedly a man). By playing the part as a bawdy wench, Raychel A. Wagner turned a weak scene into a comedic highlight.

A lobby sign reads: “Warning! This production contains strobe effects, fog, references to the occult and violence. (Sounds like fun!)” The warning fails to mention enough blood to fill a washtub, but it’s right about the fun.