Arts Listings

The Thearer: Macbeth at Berkeley Art Center

Friday May 04, 2007

Whether it’s the Weird Sisters on the heath, a dagger hovering in mid-air, Birnham Wood marching on Dunsinane, or “No man of woman born,” the Bard’s “Scottish Play”—so-called to guard against its very own evil eye—is usually drenched with atmosphere and gore, and served up as a kind of Hallowe’en blowout with cultural credentials. 

But Subterranean Shakespeare’s sharp production of Macbeth at the Berkeley Arts Center in Live Oak Park, with Jeremy Cole’s fast-paced and nimble, intimate staging, brings the drama to the fore, the story into focus, dissolving the hoary encrustations without losing the genuine strangeness of the tale, its eerie reverberations of willfulness and destiny, character and autosuggestive magic. 

“I wanted a non-sticky Macbeth,” joked the director, remembering the cleanup chores of shows past. But the result of his wish isn’t a Teflon slickness. The real power of this seeming potboiler that exposes a brave man’s ambition as murder, a loving marriage as the breeding ground of resentment and the pinnacle of success as weary cynicism, is made more direct with syncopated, overlapping scenes, crowded moments succeeded by solitary soul-baring and the fluid motion of the cast in eye-to-eye proximity to the audience—a power that is palpable, that connects with a spectator’s fleeting thoughts and emotions, rather than a vague sense of menace that provokes nervous laughter. 

A show like this casts light on why Orson Welles referred to his very different film adaptation as an artistic watershed: “Everything I did up to Macbeth was just a dress rehearsal.” 

There’s something very demanding, compact and volatile, yet mature in the close-up, dispassionate handling of such highly charged material that makes this play unique among Shakespeare’s trage-dies, a something this production touches on, over and over, refusing any sensationalism. 

The ensemble has everything to do with this sense of a well-oiled machine of fate grinding on to its predetermined outcome, the twin moods of expectation and surprise constantly intersecting in every incident and exchange. Paul Jennings is solid in the title role, clearly showing and speaking the part of a brave man turned inside-out by his own facility for action, despite the cause, first succeeding to a traitor’s relinquished title in a battlefield commission, immediately rankling at another being made Prince of Cumberland, turning to regicide and finally attaining a strange regalness as world-wise and weary, ostracized usurper, all on his own. 

Stephanie DeMott’s Lady Macbeth proves the unscrupulous, quick-witted wife of a careerist, rather than the villainous femme fatale and manipulator, who incites to action, smoothes things over—and absorbs the true horror of consequence, becoming another victim. 

The three witches, Martha Stookey, Carrie Smith and Molly Holcomb, whirl in and out in their red capes, invisibly witnessing the upshot of their prophecying, or taking on other, subsidiary roles. King Duncan, with a gold fillet of rank on his brow, is magnanimously acted out by Jack Halton, who more than doubles, after his assasination, as the ghastly, comic Porter, falling down drunk, and clutching at the pantleg of this reviewer, calling him “Equivocator”—not a bad monicker for a critic, tho’ Elizabethan for lawyer. Halton later resurfaces as Priest, watchcapped Murderer (in league with leering Nicholas Crandall) and Doctor to Milady’s somnambulist hand-rinsing. 

Others play multiply as well: Lynn-Audrey Tijerina is a stolid factotum as Banquo and an awful apparition as his accusing ghost, before playing an affecting Lady Macduff. Edward O’Neill, Nicholas Crandall, Eden Castro and Ben Grubb are all Apparitions, besides members of the court or retainers, Ben Grubb a masculine, impetuous Macduff who is more than a match to the proud, but increasingly inward tyrant Thane and King. 

Macbeth’s enveloping isolation is complemented by the snowballing resistance of the fugitives like Ross (genteel Mark Jordan) and Macduff who rally to Malcolm (Edward O’Neill). The deft stagecraft that can render both clamoring multitudes and Macbeth’s brooding insularity at the same time on such a small canvas is impressive. The counterpoint of ravening personal ambition to national grief is eloquent: “Alas, poor country! Afraid to know itself; cannot be called mother, but only our grave.” 

Subterranean Shakespeare has also come up with another, more portable treat: “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits,” a CD of 17 songs of The Bard, performed by over 30 Bay Area musicians, singers and actors (including such eminent Berkeleyans as Michael Rossman), available online at myspace/, CD Baby, Itunes —and this summer in your local bardic emporium.