It Will Have Blood

1. September, 2010 Theater No comments

For a play that’s supposedly cursed, whose title theater people make a big show of not speaking aloud, the bloody tragedy Macbeth is performed so often that it’s a credit to William Shakespeare that it retains as much power as it does the umpteenth time around. And it’s a credit to director Joel Sass and his strong, multitasking cast that the California Shakespeare Theater production feels as electrifying as if it were entirely unfamiliar and perilous ground.

Stacy Ross in Macbeth. Photo by Kevin Berne

Judd Williford in Macbeth. Photo by Kevin Berne

The action is transported from medieval Scotland to an unspecified 21st-century setting, albeit with gas masks and other elements that evoke the early part of the 20th. Its walls caked with decades’ worth of grime, medical cabinets, a lot of broken window and a dark hallway lined with doors, Daniel Ostling’s set looks like an abandoned military hospital or sanitarium. The eerie atmosphere is accentuated by spooky music full of whistling wind, sawing strings and a low grumbling hum in Andre Pluess’s sound design. Russell Champa’s lights appropriately bath the witches in ghastly green and murder scenes in blood red.

Christal Weatherly’s costumes are very much in the current fashion for contemporary stagings of Shakespearean tragedies and history plays—with flak vests, riot gear, berets and a whole lot of black—but the cocktail dresses for Lady Macbeth and bright yellow motorcycle gear for Banquo add striking flashes of color to an otherwise dark and dour palette.

The three Wyrd Sisters are creepier than ever, in white old-timey nurse’s uniforms akin to nun’s habits with black holes for faces. They wear green rubber gloves, and the large red crosses on their chests are drawn with smeared blood. Their voices echo through the speakers as they plunge their hands into corpses’ chests to get at the good stuff.

Played by Stacy Ross, Delia MacDougall and Omozé Idehenre, the witches are, of course, what set everything in motion with their prophecy that Macbeth will rise quickly from minor lord to king, spurring him—and perhaps more importantly, his wife—to scheme speedy regicide to make the prediction come true, and then more murders to keep Macbeth’s new throne secure.

Jud Williford makes a marvelously believable and all too human Macbeth, earnestly flabbergasted at the prophecy of his sudden rise from a minor lord to king, but quickly drunk on previously unthought-of ambition. From then he’s a bundle of nerves, never confident for long in his course or secure in his position. The image of a tracksuit-clad Macbeth making himself a sandwich with mayonnaise while fretting over whether he can bring himself to kill the king is amusing on the face of it, but it also strikes home with how real it feels.

Ross is a grippingly driven Lady Macbeth, all wound up with nervous energy that’s as keenly focused as her husband’s is wavering. There’s never a moment with her formidable Lady M that doesn’t feel chillingly authentic, and Ross’s take on the famous sleepwalking scene late in the play gives a well-worn monologue new urgency.

Craig Marker is a strong, soldierlike Macduff, powerful in grief and moral outrage, and Nicholas Pelczar makes a likeably sincere and cautious Banquo and a loathsomely sadistic Lennox. As Malcolm, King Duncan’s son and rightful heir, Nick Childress is amusing in silent carousing with an expressive Marissa Keltie as his non-speaking girlfriend as but is far too callow in his big speech. MacDougall proves a surprisingly sturdy bureaucrat as Ross, and Idehenre makes a sympathetic Lady Macduff. James Carpenter is an unusually compelling Porter, although more somber than comical (which is just as well, because his knock-knock jokes are awfully hard to pull off), and shines in a series of smaller roles from the murdered king to a ghoulish murderer to an unctuous cardinal.

A few of the shifts in tone between scenes feel sudden in Joel Sass’s staging (particularly from the murder to the festive coronation), making the story feel rushed even when it’s moving along at a normal pace, but overall the horror-movie atmosphere works marvelously with the play. Even its most over-the-top elements are impressively effective. No matter how many dozens of times I’ve seen this play, for example, it had never occurred to me that one particular conversation between lords could be played as a torture scene.

At intermission it seemed like a few audience members weren’t having it. “It’s like, ‘Look at how clever we are!’” one guy harrumphed on the way to the shiny new restrooms. “Why are we in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s laboratory?” said someone who may or may not have been the same guy as I passed by a little later. I couldn’t disagree more. I wasn’t a fan of Sass’s Pericles with Cal Shakes two years ago, but this Macbeth‘s ghoulish modern touches are certainly noticeable but for the most part serve the play more than distract from it.

For anyone who knows the play it’s more than a little jarring when one of its most famous speeches is skipped over, which distracts from the climactic bits immediately following where it would normally be. During these dramatic death scenes you might wind up thinking, “Yeah, this is great stuff, but what the heck just happened?” When the speech does finally come in its rearranged position, it’s hauntingly effective and reinforces the spooky atmosphere of the whole production.  It’s just a shame that it sacrifices some of power of the usual climax of the play amid the confusion on the way there.

Through September 12
Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way
Orinda, CA

Show #86 of 2010, attended August 21.

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