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Monday, March 17, 2014

Theatre Review: Macbeth (A Noise Within 2014 Production)

Production photo by Craig Schwartz
Every Shakespeare production offers something different, and I’m always excited to see what a company will focus on within a given play. The best productions can make an audience look at even the most familiar plays in new ways, or offer new insights. A Noise Within’s new production of Macbeth does just that by stressing certain elements contained within Shakespeare's great tragedy. It stresses the reality of the ghostly aspects of the play by not only having us see Banquo's ghost and the dagger, but also the ghosts of all who die at Macbeth’s hand or by his command. The witches also play a greater role, remaining on or near the stage in many scenes. The witches also take on other roles, such as that of the Porter, so the idea of magic and witchcraft and ghosts is pervasive. In addition, the memory of the Macbeth's child is very much a present factor in the lives of the Macbeths. and informs much of their actions.

Before the show, the stage is nearly bare, with simply a large bowl directly below a burlap sack which hangs on a rope from the ceiling. The sack is stained red and seems to contain a severed head. There are also two platform ramps that extend into the audience, one on the stage right side and one in the center. There are also two candelabras and a child’s mobile hanging.

The play opens with many hooded figures entering from various directions. Three of them gather around the bowl in the center of stage and begin the witches’ lines. Interestingly, they’re men in this production. In their second scene, they hold large puppet heads and affect witches’ voices rather than their natural voices as in the first scene. The puppets might be present in part to be able to keep referring to them as the weird sisters. Interestingly, they return to their normal voices on “Peace! the charm’s wound up,” implying that it is the affected voices and the puppets that work the magic on people.


Macbeth (Elijah Alexander) has a great sense of wonder when asking about how the prophecies could come true. He enjoys hearing his fortune, but doesn’t put much store in it. And there is a pleasant camaraderie in this scene between Macbeth and Banquo (Leith Burke). During Macbeth’s aside after Malcolm is named Prince of Cumberland, the rest of the cast freezes on stage and remain that way for the duration of his speech.

Lady Macbeth’s introduction is quite interesting. The child’s mobile has come down, and there is a doll and an overturned – and empty – basket, as one would use to carry an infant, hints of the mysterious child she later alludes to and which the Macbeths clearly lost. This dead child plays quite a significant part in this production. It really feels like she’s somehow replacing her desire and need for a child with a wish for the entire kingdom.

The play really requires strong performances from both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and in this production it certainly gets them. Lady Macbeth (Jules Willcox), when she gets to the word “king” in the letter, has a joy about her, which is wonderful. When Macbeth arrives, she jumps into his embrace, showing a warmth, which is delightful and allows for greater contrast later.

Macbeth looks at the baby basket and picks up the doll, showing this has affected him as well, or at least that he understands how it has affected his wife. During his speech, when he says, “And pity, like a naked new-born babe,” he looks over at the mobile again. Lady Macbeth uses the memory of the baby to convince Macbeth to do the deed, and it works because they’ve set up the importance of the baby for both of them. Then Macbeth’s later lines in Act III “Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown” and “barren scepter” mean even more because of the focus on that mysterious babe. Also nice is the fact that after they’ve decided their course of action, the Macbeths are followed off stage by the three witches. There is a strong sense of their actions being determined by outside forces, that once they start along the path, it is then the path that controls things, not them.

The “dagger of the mind” speech is done in a really interesting way. There is a physical dagger, placed blade-down by one of the witches, who then shines a flashlight on it. But by the line “dagger of the mind,” the dagger is gone, the witch having removed it. Then a second witch shines a light on another, identical dagger in a different location downstage. And then the third does the same, leading to Macbeth’s “I see it still.”

Lady Macbeth is strong throughout her performance, but is particularly striking in the scene where she returns with bloody hands. Her reading of “To wear a heart so white” is great, and there is a crazy joy in her reading of “A little water clears us of this deed,” which is perfect. She also very clearly chooses precise moments to show the changes in Lady Macbeth’s attitude. For example, she becomes frightened of Macbeth just before his “Thou marvell’st at my words; but hold thee still.”

The Porter scene is interesting. The Porter is played by one of the witches, and he dons a red clown nose when doing what is essentially the world’s earliest knock-knock joke. The other two witches shine flashlights on him from below, creating an eerie effect, with the Porter’s shadow moving on the back wall. This scene has a much darker tone than usual. The Porter does remove the red nose before Macduff and Lennox enter. There is the usual physical representation of the “desire/performance” line, with the Porter using his arm to illustrate the joke on impotence.

Duncan and the two men accused of the murder step behind Macbeth as ghosts when Macbeth describes the scene and how he dispatched the two murderers. Then, interestingly, Duncan’s ghost doubles as Old Man in Act II Scene iv, with his head covered. The witches gather around him, and all of them speak the Old Man’s line, “’Tis said they eat each other.” Duncan then uncovers his face for “That would make good of bad, and friends of foes.” This isn’t really an instance of an actor playing two roles. It’s more of a character playing another role, which is interesting. Duncan’s continued presence works to make this a more haunting production, and helps to stress the feeling that Macbeth cannot escape what he has done. Then, later, after Banquo is killed, Duncan and the others go to him, and help him up, as he joins the ranks of those murdered on behalf of Macbeth. Yes, this production has sort of an army of the dead, which grows as the play goes on, and they all enter during Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Lady Macbeth is excellent in that scene, and the ghosts are used to good effect, particularly when Lady Macbeth seems to see the ghost of Macduff’s Son and directs her lines “Come, give me your hand” and “What’s done cannot be undone” to him. Again, that stresses her own missing child, and is both chilling and sad.

Interestingly, during the witches’ famous “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, all of the ingredients they mention are simply imagined. It’s odd that all ghostly items have a physical presence, yet the ingredients of the spell do not. The stage smoke comes from upstage rather than from their cauldron. The apparitions and the line of kings are included in this production, and done in an intriguing way, with large, clear representations of each held on pikes.

The costumes are a mix of time periods, though all are of dark and somber colors. The production also has both swords and pistols (the pistol shots are quite jarring). And there are flashlights used by cast members at various points in the production. Because of the dark clothing, there is a wonderful contrast with the red on their hands after the murders. And then when Macbeth has gained the throne, both he and Lady Macbeth have red in their new, royal clothing, a nice touch, as they achieved the throne through blood. The red of her clothing is brighter, richer, than the more muted red tone of Macbeth’s cloak, another interesting touch as at this moment it seems Lady Macbeth is more in control. There is also a nice image when Lady Macbeth is seated on the throne, and Macbeth is seated in front of her at her feet. She is clearly more comfortable than he is. By the way, this production uses the 18th century emendation “scotch’d the snake” rather than “scorch’d the snake.”

There are some blocking issues. For example, early on when Macbeth learns that he is now Thane Of Cawdor, he turns up stage so quickly that we don’t see his immediate reaction to that news, which is a shame, particularly as he is standing downstage at that moment. Then when Malcolm is named Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth is standing in the audience facing upstage, so you have to look over to him to get his reaction. The biggest sight line issue regarding the blocking is that with the ghosts standing around the stage, Macbeth is blocked from the view of several audience members during the play’s most famous and heart-rending speech (“tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”).

Almost the entire cast is strong. Banquo, in particular, has some excellent moments. There is a nice pause before his line, “I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters,” like he’s unsure he wants to bring it up but then can’t help it, adding to the power of the ghostly elements of the production. However, the casting of a woman as Donalbain doesn’t quite work, especially as the production retains the lines about “the king’s two sons.” And she and the man playing Malcolm look absolutely nothing like the actor playing Duncan.

As always, there are some cuts. Act III Scene v, as usual, is cut. Also, though Banquo is present for the feast, he does not take a seat, and so the lines pertaining to the full table are cut. Macbeth’s fight with Young Siward is cut, so Macbeth’s only fight is with Macduff.

As with Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2013 production, this production ends where it began, with the witches once again asking “When shall we three meet again?” This production, however, continues the scene until “There to meet with-” And so we are left with the impression that the troubles are not quite over, but also wondering precisely who it is that the witches will be involved with next.

Macbeth was directed by Larry Carpenter. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene iv. This production of Macbeth runs through May 11, 2014. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. There is free parking at the Metro Parking Structure.

(Note: I also posted this review on Mostly Shakespeare.)

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