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For Whom the Bell Tolls

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio
Saturday, July 22, 2017, right front of the grass lawn
Directed by Tyson Douglas Rand

Macbeth behind Lady Macbeth holds her to him as he talks. He's wearing a black jacket, she's in a black dress with a tartan sash. The multi-level platform is behind them, and a grassy hill and tree trunk beyond.
Macbeth (Eric Perusek) talks with Lady Macbeth (Cat R. Kenney) during Cleveland Shakespeare Festival's production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. The structure in the background, on which rests the crown, serves as Duncan's chamber. Below, Macbeth toasts the thanes and lords at his feast attended by the ghost of Banquo (Allen Branestein, lower right). Photos by Gabe Schaffer, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival.

The 771-foot gothic-cum-neoclassical Terminal Tower rises 52 stories beyond the stage. Newer skyscrapers stand over our shoulders. Just a few blocks away at Progressive Field, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians are playing the Toronto Blue Jays next to where a National Basketball Association championship banner hangs at the Cavaliers' home arena. Right in the heart of the city, the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is presenting William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Public Square.

Though a majestic place to stage a play, Public Square presents environmental challenges. The audience generally can hear the actors thanks to a sound system using ground microphones, but aural intrusions include come-and-go sirens, motorcycles, drunk Blue Jays fans who apparently couldn’t get tickets to the game, boomboxes, buses, a tour trolly with the guided tour blaring over a crackling loudspeaker, and a man passing by who hears Macbeth speak of life as "a tale told by an idiot” and loudly proclaims, “That's the truth, isn't it?! What is this? Hey, what is this?”

One aural intrusion comes and comes again, and again: the quarter-hour tolling of the Old Stone Church’s bell across the street from the stage. However, Shakespeare could have written it into his script as a sound effect. Macbeth sees the vision of the dagger as he prepares to murder King Duncan: "Let me clutch thee," he says. The church bell tolls. "Here comes the good Macduff," says Ross in the aftermath of the murder. The church bell tolls. The ghost of Banquo settles into the seat at the head of Macbeth’s banquet table. The church bell tolls. Macduff meets with Duncan’s son, Malcolm, in England to raise a force to topple Macbeth. The church bell tolls. Macbeth learns that Birnam Wood is coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The church bell tolls.

What has become a cliché, that “all the world’s a stage,” was, for the man who gave us that phrase, an operational dictum. Shakespeare originally wrote for outdoor and transient theater. He and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and, later, the King’s Men, played his works in London’s urban, open-to-the-skies theaters built for that purpose, as well as in pubs and royal palaces, market squares and lords’ manors, and inns of court and inn courtyards throughout England. Touring troupes had to prepare for a variety of play spaces and pack accordingly, and the actors had to contend with all manner of environmental issues, from foul weather to noisy fairs and, I’m sure, inebriated men shouting “What is this?”

Moreover, Shakespeare seems to have written for all such contingencies. We have seen too many on-cue incidents in outdoor theaters (as well as indoor play spaces replicating those Shakespeare wrote for) to not believe this is so. We have seen a breeze scatter the pieces of Julia’s rent love letter in The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the moment she exhorts, “Be calm, good wind, blow not a word away." We have seen an acorn crash to the stage right at the moment Lysander calls Hermia “you acorn” in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And now we hear a church bell deliver ominous warning tones to Macbeth, though, as with the Weird Sisters' prophecies, they don’t do him much good.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival does more than play Shakespeare’s works; it does so while using the Elizabethan theater companies' touring model as it takes two works per summer season to public spaces around Cleveland and its suburbs. This summer the company celebrated its 20th anniversary season by staging the two plays it put on in its inaugural year, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth. This is the first year it has been invited to play at Public Square. I cannot overstate how logistically impressive the festival’s operation is, moving its portable stage and equipment in and out of a difficult-to-get-the-truck-to location quickly and efficiently.

Also impressive is how the production’s director, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Tyson Douglas Rand, uses touring staging restrictions to create, rather than limit, stage effects. The Weird Sisters (Jeanne Madison, Khaki Hermann, and Keith Kornajcik) wear black and carry purple shawls. When they present the apparitions to Macbeth, they mime cooking in a cauldron, then use their shawls to resemble smoke through which the apparitions emerge. For the mortal characters, Costume Designer Meg Parish uses modern dress with tartan accoutrements. Macbeth (Eric Perusek) and Banquo (Allen Branstein) wear camouflage jackets and black cargo pants plus tartan sashes and caps (Macbeth dons a black sports jacket after he becomes king). King Duncan (Robert Hawkes) wears a three-piece suit with a jeweled crown and a green tartan vest, the latter matching the caps and sashes that his children wear. Lady Macbeth (Cat R. Kenney) is in a long black dress with tartan sash and a white handkerchief hanging from her wrist; upon reporting her death in the final act, the messenger gives Macbeth the handkerchief.

Transportable stage elements become allegorical spaces. Left of center stage, a stack of blocks and steps form a bilevel structure that serves as the location of Duncan’s chamber in Macbeth’s castle. During Macbeth’s premurder soliloquy, Lady Macbeth places the daggers on the structure. During her soliloquy, Macbeth ascends to the first level, picks up the daggers, and holds them in each hand aloft. After suddenly shouting, “Who’s there?!” startling Lady Macbeth, he descends with the daggers. She takes the daggers back to their place after discovering them still in his hands. Macduff, after arriving at the castle, ascends and stands on the first level looking toward the back of the stage before descending in a state of horror to report the murder. Macbeth and Lennox then step up toward the chamber, but Macbeth is clearly hesitant to look toward the back of the stage; then, he again picks up the daggers and holds them aloft, representing his slaying the two groomsmen.

Rand also turns the tour’s personnel restrictions—a cast of 12 plus crew—to his allegorical advantage, doubling roles for effect. In addition to playing Duncan, Hawkes plays the Porter, creating keen irony when the drunk Porter appears at the very moment Duncan dies. Rand also puts the Porter in the banquet scene, serving the lords at the table, then stepping back behind the stacks of blocks. Banquo’s ghost moves toward the Porter, hands over his cloak, then places the crown on his head before Hawkes ascends the structure representing his death chamber. Thus, when Banquo’s ghost makes his second appearance, Duncan’s ghost is there, too, which freaks out Macbeth even more.

This piece of stage business is not textual, but it is effective, and it illustrates that while Macbeth has turned bloody tyrant—and "blood will have blood" leading to his decisions to kill the groomsmen, murder Banquo and his son, and massacre Macduff's family—he remains haunted by his first crime, slaughtering Duncan. "I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen' stuck in my throat," he wails in describing the murder to his wife at the watershed moment of his psychosis. "You do unbend your noble strength to think so brainsickly of things," Lady Macbeth replies.

The production’s running time is a little over 90 minutes without an intermission. Yet, with the exception of excising Hecate (scenes that Shakespeare probably did not write), the script feels whole, and we get Macbeth’s full psychological journey, his mind of scorpions manifesting in a supremely egomaniacal tyrant. The witches' seemingly impossible prophecies (that he need only fear one not of woman born, and that only after a forest ups and moves toward his castle) fuel his sense of invincibility in his final scenes, but as early as the banquet scene we see the tyrant’s mind at work as his ego and self-interest shove aside reality and common sense. And though professing strength and invincibility, he also shrouds himself in a mantle of victimhood. Banquo is left murdered in a ditch but Fleance escapes, and if not for that, "I had else been perfect," Macbeth rails at the First Murderer (Hannah Storch). "Now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears," laying all responsibility for the situation of his own sowing at the foot of the murderer. When I heard Perusek speaks these lines, my mind wandered back to Washington, D.C.

The extent of Macbeth's tyrannical behavior in the second half of the play juxtaposes with the milquetoast man of the early scenes—not on the battlefield as we see Macbeth slaying his way to victory while it’s being described to Duncan (the play's first two scenes are combined as, suddenly out of nowhere in the middle of Macbeth’s second scene, the Weird Sisters appear, speak their hurly-burly lines from the play’s first scene, and skitter off as Scene Two continues). Perusek's Macbeth clearly loses his bearings upon meeting the Weird Sisters on the heath in the next scene, unnerved by their prophecy that he shall be king hereafter (especially after their other prophecy, that he is Thane of Cawder, turns out to be accurate). Yet, his ambition for a while longer remains grounded in his sense of honor and duty. "I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people, which would be worn now in their newest gloss, not cast aside so soon."

This he tells his wife, but his resolve to remain honorable dissolves when she breathes fire in response. We've already seen Lady Macbeth "unsex" herself in a demonic chant, a pagan spell using circular motions and hands raised in supplication to spiritual forces to "fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty" (Macbeth uses the same pattern of movements later in the play when he invokes "seeling night" to "scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day; and with thy bloody and invisible hand cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale"). Kenney is a mighty force as Lady Macbeth in these premurder scenes, sparing not even her husband her "direst cruelty." She speaks her lines with such vicious disdain for Macbeth's manhood that if his pride weren't responding to her verbal assault, his fear of her would suffice to move him to murder the king who not only is a guest in his home but who "hath honored me of late." She will be queen; heck, she would be king if she could. But the psychological path she sojourns runs opposite that of her husband's; his seed of ego grows into kudzu, strangling the poisoning chokehold she initially had on him.

Branstein’s Banquo arrives in the play not only as equal to Macbeth in rank ("our captains," Duncan calls the two) but as close companion. This emerges in the easy, confident manner in which Branstein interacts with Perusek's Macbeth, including noting that Macbeth "seems to fear" the Weird Sisters' prophecies. Even after the witches' obtuse proclamation that he will get kings but be none himself, Branstein’s Banquo reacts to the encounter with good nature. "Were such things here as we do speak about? Or have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?" he says, a line that earns a laugh. The arrival of the other lords with news that Macbeth is now, as the witches prophesied, Thane of Cawdor, does not alter Banquo's skepticism—"What, can the devil speak true?"—but it does incite his concern for Macbeth. "To win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray's in deepest consequence," he warns Macbeth. When Macbeth suggests that they later, "speak our free hearts each to other" concerning what they just experienced, Banquo replies, "Very gladly," but Branstein's demeanor clearly expresses that he'd rather not.

Yet he is the one who brings it up next, finding a roundabout way to broach the subject after Duncan has concluded the banquet (and Macbeth is preparing to murder the king): "I dreamt last night of the three weyard sisters: to you they have showed some truth," Branstein's Banquo says in a probing manner. "I think not of them," Perusek's Macbeth replies too quickly to be sincere. During Macbeth's coronation (played as a processional down an aisle through the audience lounging on the grass), Banquo reveals his suspicions to the audience, and then knows the truth for certain when Macbeth queries Banquo about how he intends to spend his time before that night’s feast. "Goes Fleance with you?" Macbeth asks, and Branstein freezes, taking a moment to answer in the affirmative. Thus, when Banquo and Fleance are later attacked, Banquo's sole focus is not on protecting Fleance but making sure he escapes. "Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Thou mayst revenge," a point which finally gets Hannah Hilty’s Fleance to run away. Only then does Banquo turn his attention on fighting the attackers.

Macbeth, in black with tartan sash across his chest under his jacket, mimes holding aloft a cup as the other members of the cast, sitting around him, likewise mime toasting with cups (Lady Macbeth stands next to Macbeth) as the gray-cloaked figure of Banquo sits with his back to us to the right. In the background are large black and brown tents and trees.One of whom, Storch’s First Murderer, gives an indelible performance for two starkly different reasons. She presents a dangerously engaging depiction of evil in the character, coyly humorous and imbued with captivating charm—she's fun to watch. However, when the murderers assault Macduff’s castle, Storch wrests the baby from Lady Macduff (Hermann), shushes her as she gently lays the baby on the ground, then smashes its head with her foot. That cry you hear is from among the audience as well as Hermann. (By the by, Hilty also plays Macduff’s son in this scene and presents him rolling his eyes at his mother’s overly dramatic statements upon news that Macduff has left for England. Seeing a petulant young Macduff is a nice switch from the too-cute-for-school presentations I’m used to seeing).

Banquo dies on stage. The Weird Sisters resurrect him, and thus he makes it to Macbeth’s feast as he insisted, but as a ghost. "Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with," Macbeth shouts at the ghost, but the ghost can't speak (rare for a Shakespearean ghost), a fact Branstein presents as frustrating for Banquo. If the ghost could speak, he might have sounded a warning to Macbeth for what was surely coming (instead, he provides a visual warning by giving way to the murdered Duncan's ghost). But tyrants can't heed anything beyond their own ego: Not the truth in witches' riddles, not the advice of good friends, living or dead, and not even their own experience. The bell will yet toll, and toll again. And again.

Eric Minton
August 18, 2017

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