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Macbeth stumbles at Cal Shakespeare

By Robert Hall, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday July 12, 2002

“T'was a rough night,” Macbeth murmurs shortly after he does in King Duncan in Shakespeare's bleak Scottish play. No kidding.  

Too bad those words might also describe the version by Cal Shakespeare,directed by Kate Whoriskey, now at the Bruns Amphitheater in the Orinda. It features real horses that canter onstage and clip-clop among the audience. On opening night a serendipitous hawk keened eerie cries to counterpoint Lady Macbeth's, “Unsex me here!”  

Sometimes strong and sometimes silly, it's one of the oddest takes on the play: a schizophrenic Macbeth. 

Its oddness begins with its set, a book-ended pair of black, looming walls. Not that they don't make a fitting statement about what's to come, but unfortunately, the stage under them is covered with a blanket of grayish gravel that trips up some actors and has others plodding carefully. 

It's symbolic gravel, of course, but is it worth sabotaging the action? 

Worse is the giant box that takes up center stage. It’s tacky and oblong, like a giant K-Mart display case, and is strewn 

with garish pink sand. Pink? Statues of a bull, a serpent and a ram stare out from its confines. Why? And why is King Duncan's seat of power discovered inside the serpent? Isn't that niche more appropriate for Macbeth? 

From the start the production can’t gain momentum. The actors seem oddly at sea, and despite its moments of clever staging, the tale limps for most of its first half. A main problem is Mia Barron as Lady Macbeth. Barron hasn't a drop of evil in her, and her swank dresses and perfectly coiffed hair make her look more like a teen debutante than a schemer. Her glossy performance might fit a sharp-witted comic heroine like Rosalinde or Viola. But it doesn't suggest a woman who could drive an unwilling husband to murder. When she and Macbeth meet in moments that are supposed to be fraught with passion, they evoke only a tinny melodrama. 

Yet Boris McGiver as Macbeth is something to watch. His version of the would-be king develops in fits and starts. In the last analysis, it doesn't work. But it is fascinating and even daring. The tormented tragic hero is a bewildered bloke. McGiver's Macbeth is like a dull, working class Joe one might meet in a bar. He might be genial, scratching his head at the weirdness that comes his way (like prophetic witches), and going along with the bad stuff because it's easier than fighting it. 

Despite his subsequent deeds, this Macbeth remains strangely innocent. But is a Gary-Cooperish Macbeth strong enough to sustain Shakespeare's play? Unfortunately, no. Yet even though McGiver blinks too much and has too many slack-jawed moments, he is absorbing, and he gives the famous “out, out” speech a riveting reading. 

Fortunately the production gets better as it goes along. Act I ends with an effective banquet scene. Act 2 develops momentum and authority, partly due to strong performances by David Mendelsohn, as an earnest and impassioned Malcolm, and by James Carpenter, as a stirring Macduff, whose reaction to his family's murder is especially moving. Fight scenes, choreographed by Christopher Morrison, have a jarring clout, and bare white branches nicely evoke Birnham Wood. Sound man Garth Hemphill provides ominous background rhythms. Meg Neville's coal and ash-colored costumes enhance dark moods. 

And Scott Zeilinsky's lighting is evocative. The audience can be grateful that at the end no one parades Macbeth's severed head on the end of a stick. 

Among the rest of the cast: Chris Ayles is a richly avuncular Duncan, Andy Murray is a sturdy Banquo, and Julie Eccles is an affecting Lady Macduff. (In fact Murray and Eccles' performances make you almost wish they had played the leads.) 

Macbeth may be the least complex and varied of Shakespeare's tragedies. More than the others, it cries out for texture, subtlety – a treatment to make its familiarity come alive. Though it has its moments, Cal Shakespeare's version doesn't renew Macbeth so much as act it out once more. It lacks urgency and the consistency of imagination to remind us why this great play should still speak to us.