Arts Listings

Mark Jackson’s ‘Macbeth’ at Shotgun

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 06:19:00 PM

Thrusting out aggressively at the audience seated for Mark Jackson’s retrofitted Macbeth at the Ashby Stage, a Shotgun production, is the much-discussed ramp, with a marble walkway, leading back to the proscenium, an iron-bound wall of fitted stone. Inside the arch, a shining, spangled throne room, replete with light-toned Viking-modern royal seat (set by Nina Ball, lit by Jon Tracy, Sarah Huddleston’s sound), where in a dreamlike sequence like a strange commercial, or an inspirational training video gone wrong, Macbeth himself will take the crown from the wakeful king he slays, murdering sleep twice over. 

But before these visualizations of what Jackson hints are the primal scenes underlying ambition, the stage displays itself, its light patina docile to the strains of burlesk music, all textured surface echoing bumps and grinds, not brooding or even anticipating the splashes of action and color across it. The signal for action will be the words, not ornamental, as when Banquo, strolling at night, wonders when it will rain—and his murderer leaps out, crying, “Let it come down!” 

That line was turned over for the title of a book, like many another Bardic tag (Ambrose Bierce’s horror tales, entitled Can Such Things Be?, also takes an exclamation from Macbeth), a novel by Paul Bowles, who once said his unsettling stories came from an imagined landscape, which the characters then emerged from. Mark Jackson seems to work analogously: the stage is dressed, music plays, the air is alight—and the actors people the setting, action fitting the arrangement of things, like the king’s assassination—often best when it’s a discrete, dreamlike image.  

Sometimes the image is less stylized than posed; the scene degenerates into analogy instead of making a tableau, showing a picture of “the pregnant moment.” Or a particular gambit, forcefully addressed, doesn’t follow through. Blythe Foster tumbles acrobatically onstage as Lady Macbeth, her entrance as a fashion-plate young socialite turned cheerleader, somersaulting with her husband’s letter of victory clutched like a telegram as she flips up her skirt to show her violet panties, stroking herself, on display. This gets an echo when she “faces” down her querulous husband—with a breast in his stunned mug—as she announces her resolve is so strong she’d dash her own nursing infant to pieces if she’d sworn to. But the swing seems checked; there’s no sense of follow-through later in the dread sleepwalking scene, which becomes more handwringing than rinsing. 

Shakespeare’s play—or the expectations it’s come to raise—is filled with pitfalls and cliches that have become Hallowe’en kitsch, clearly what Jackson hopes to avoid with a production plan that cancels the hoary gloom and imports brightness and youth. No coy mouthing of “The Scottish Play” to pussyfoot around the famous curse that dogs even its title. 

But strangely it is all that—stuff—in a left-handed way that serves as a heavy, baroque—even Breughel-esque—drapery, setting off the ambiguities that underlie the melodrama, the real stuff of imagining. The childless Lady M. swearing on her imaginary murder of an imaginary child; her husband later massacres the brood—“All my pretty ones!”—of his nemesis, MacDuff, “not of woman born,” but “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb”—the Lochinvar who rides in to quickly right the wrong with a swordstroke. 

“The Macbeths” are billed as a young, swinging, ambitious—and childless—couple, entertaining King Duncan with a cocktail party, flirtacious chatter and DJ music, before dispatching him abed. Brecht envisioned something parallel—the murderous couple of lesser nobility, poor, ambitious, young and passionately in love. 

“We are yet but young in deed.” Shakespeare’s ambiguities are hard to catch onstage. Herman Melville called The Bard’s truth like “a white doe, flying through the woodlands,” shyly peeking out from behind a tree. There’s the famous quip that three actors should play Macbeth: the upright young warrior who all but stumbles into regicide, the ruthless despot destroying friend and foe (and his beloved inciter) alike—and the jaded tyrant “who has tasted fine wine ... and lost that taste” but drinks down the cup, as Orson Welles summed it up. Craig Marker strikes a fine figure in the lead, capturing the energy and the stunned, puzzled quality of a man of action who realizes he’s lost his way, as well as something of the ruthlessness, finally ululating like a cornered beast, inviting his foes to bring it on. 

The men come off better, at least so far in production—Marker, Daniel Duque-Estrada’s Banquo, stout fellow John Mercer as both Duncan and Siward, Peter Ruocco’s MacDuff, Reid Davis as the ghastly funny Porter, Kevin Clarke’s Bloody Sergeant ... in a cast of 13 (that curse again?), there are just two women anyway, Zehra Berkman a single, composite Weird Sister, a ghoulish voyeur, doubling as a pregnant Lady MacDuff. One of Jackson’s conceits has the witches’ reprise not on the heath, but in the bedroom, with an orgasmic Lady M. taking on the outre’ prophetic shapes at the Weird Sister’s beck.  

With the fashions (from Foley & Bonny in El Cerrito, Valera Coble the costumer)—suits and ties, trenchcoats, attache cases (a fastidious killer flicks off a speck of gore)—it’s a little like The Man in the Grey Flannel Jerkin, corporate cut-throats... timely enough. Jackson scavenges bits and pieces from diverse genres to flesh out his anachronism; besides the text, a film noirish undertow is the darkest thing afoot. The clashing references make for funny line readings. With all the preening, there should be a bigger laugh on: “Then fly, false things, and mingle with the English epicures.” 


8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 11 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $18-25; $30 runway seats; $50 New Years Eve show and celebration. 841-6500.