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Special Effects Shakespeare

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, June 21, 2014, D–6&7 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Jim Warren

When we think of Macbeth, we imagine witches, battles, supernatural events, an entire forest moving, and murder, of course. It is a play of such scope that many directors are automatically drawn to the potential spectacle and special effects of it all, firing imagination to the epic Harry-Potter-meets-Medieval-Times scale of the Kenneth Branagh production currently playing at New York's Park Avenue Armory.

Lady Macbeth, hair down, blood on hter chin and nose, places her bloody hands around Macbeth's neck, as he, holding bloody hands up, looks into her face.
Lady Macbeth (Sarah Fallon) tries to calm the consternated Macbeth (James Keegan) after his murdering King Duncan in the American Shakespeare Center's production of Macbeth. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

Many directors, but not Jim Warren. He's working in the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse, a space with staging conditions that replicate that which William Shakespeare himself was using when he first imagined his play. One of the play's special effects is particularly noteworthy as it pertains to play space. It's the final apparition presented to Macbeth, when the last in a parade of kings holds up a mirror showing Banquo's regal progeny continuing into infinity. That infinity was King James himself attending the play's premiere, and if, as scholars speculate, he or the audience could see his reflection in the mirror, that requires intimate staging, not epic proportions. Besides, the really grand spectacles in Macbeth—the battles and moving wood—all occur offstage. So, too, does King Duncan's murder. That last point indicates that Shakespeare had thematic reasons for portraying these events only in thought and word: the play's real drama is what happens in the minds of Macbeth, his wife, and his enemies.

Thus, by showing true fealty to the text and relying on superb acting and simple stage tricks, ASC produces a Macbeth that is a psychological thriller in its most visceral form: the spectacle is in your own imagination, the special effect is your thumping heart.

OK, this production does have one incredible visual special effect: Jenny McNee's costumes. ASC's costume designs have always been admirable, but last year they ascended a new level of style (with Romeo and Juliet), cleverness (with Return to the Forbidden Planet), authenticity (with She Stoops to Conquer), and lushness (with All's Well That Ends Well). This artistic year's opening volley (Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac) proves ASC costumers to be on a champion's roll. With Macbeth, McNee ranges from muted-tone tartans and leather armor for the Scottish thanes and Elizabethan gowns and tartan sashes for their ladies to Hecate's acid-trip getup. Chris Johnston plays her in a floor-length gown resembling a birch tree covered in spider webs and moss and wearing a crown of miniature eland horns.

Other special effects are incredible for the way they are accomplished. The production's eerie soundtrack comes from actors backstage groaning, moaning, and atonally singing. The trap door gets a workout, and just the loud slamming of door on stage makes the audience jump. The apparitions are actors rising through the floor into tautly drawn black fabric, so we can make out the outlines of their faces as they warn Macbeth of Macduff, Birnum Wood moving to Dunsinane, and someone of no woman born. The parade of kings is a ghostly procession in the balcony, the last holding the mirror (though I couldn't see myself reflected in it, or anyone else, for that matter). Special shout-out goes to this troupe of 12 actors hauling ass up and down three levels and giving as spirited—albeit anonymous—performances back stage as they do on stage.

The Weird Sisters themselves are a special effect in the performing. Jonathan Holtzman, Patrick Midgley, and Gregory Jon Phelps, barechested and wearing black skullcaps and robes of snake-like strands, squeal like children on a Halloween candy high as they behave like a gang of Alex DeLarges from A Clockwork Orange: enchanting evil, sinister innocence, playful malevolence. This production maintains all of the Hecate portions, including her song—performed as a kind of rap—though much evidence indicates her scenes to be a Thomas Middleton interpolation for a production after Shakespeare's retirement. ASC, though, has no qualms keeping Middleton's contribution because they do Middleton here, anyway: it's all in the name of Jacobean theater authenticity, not Shakespeare purity.

Because of its text-centric nature, even with such an oft-acted piece as Macbeth, the play seems brand-new because it arrives at our ears and in our conscious without any conceptual filters. Sticking to the text, James Keegan reveals Macbeth to not be aiming for the crown at the play's start but desirous of it, nonetheless. That's a key distinction, a distinction that he blurs after hearing the Weird Sisters' prophecy. Over the course of the play, the Weird Sisters make a total of seven pronouncements: 1) Macbeth is Thane of Glamis; 2) Macbeth is Thane of Cawdor; 3) Macbeth will be king; 4) Banquo's line shall become kings; 5) Macbeth should beware Macduff; 6) Only none of woman born shall harm Macbeth; and 7) Macbeth is safe until Birnum Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill. All are or become true; only one, though, is actually precipitated by Macbeth taking action himself: number three, becoming king. The odds, then, were 6-to-1 in his favor that he would become king, no matter what. Even after the prophecy, he notes that "chance may crown me without my stir."

Keegan's Macbeth, in a soliloquy that makes him seem "rapt" to his fellows, ponders not his ambition or right to the throne but the importance and potency of this supernatural herald. At this point, their divination is only a seed of justification for doing more than merely waiting. That seed takes root when he comes to realize how much he really wants to be king once King Duncan (John Harrell) pronounces his eldest son, Malcom (Benjamin Reed) as heir to the throne. Macbeth's only reaction is to effusively congratulate the prince. But the moment does instill in him doubt in the prophecy's veracity: "The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step on which I must fall down or else o'erleap, for in my way it lies" is observation here, not plotting. But it is a doubt that triggers Macbeth's disappointment, which then sends him into a dangerous psychological state, so dangerous he doesn't want even the pinprick light of stars to "see my black and deep desires."

Keegan in this and subsequent soliloquies portrays the mind of Macbeth in intense debate with itself. It is not just a matter of choosing good or evil; it is coming to terms with warring desires: to be king now and ensure that what the Weird Sisters said happens (the path of certainty) or to trust in the prophecy and be king whenever and however hereafter comes (the way where lies honor and good conscience).

Lady Macbeth believes "hereafter" means tomorrow. In Sarah Fallon's shrewish portrayal, Macbeth's wife points out to him that honor is merely a matter of maintaining appearances while good conscience should not even be a factor (both shall learn that good conscience should not be undervalued). Her decision point is upon learning that Duncan is soon arriving at her castle which, to her, carries providential meaning; as she soliloquizes on how Macbeth should "catch the nearest way" to the promise foretold by the Weird Sisters, a servant alerts her to the king's approach. "Thou'rt mad to say it," she chastises the messenger as the immediate moment of wish fulfillment catches her by surprise. Then continuing her soliloquy, she says, "The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements." Fallon plays Lady Macbeth's own keen-eyed ambition to the hilt and into her unsex me incantation like an orgasm. Even the potential of power is her pleasure.

Most productions I've seen cut the ensuing dialogue between Duncan and Banquo (René Thornton Jr.) on how "this castle hath a pleasant seat" for a regal bird; it's left in here, and it provides a shuddering juxtaposition with that hoarse raven Lady Macbeth just alluded to and the real danger lying under her battlements. Another chilling juxtaposition comes later when Macduff's wife and children are brutally murdered, and just as the murderers walk off dragging the bodies, Macduff (Jonathan Holtzman) strides on stage with Malcolm for their England scene.

I also have never before noticed the thematic arc of progeny in this play, of which the Weird Sisters' greeting to Banquo is only the most obvious. The Macbeths have had at least one child, and Fallon and Keegan play a lingering loss when she says, "I have given suck, and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me." Of course, she moves directly from this recollection into her willingness to dash the babe's brains out as an example of her own grasp-at-opportunity fortitude. This same image returns at the end of this scene. "Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males," Macbeth says, acknowledging how well she has fortified his resolve while at the same time comforting her in the aforementioned loss. Fallon's Lady Macbeth takes his comment as the highest of compliments. We see Banquo's son Fleance survive an attempted murder; we see Macduff's children murdered. The latter becomes a gulf too large for Macduff to transverse: revenge on Macbeth is meaningless for the simple reason that Macbeth has no children Macduff could kill, too.

Keegan's is a Macbeth full of sound and fury. Once he murders Duncan, he turns aggressively impatient with his servants, with the Weird Sisters, with guys who won't stay dead, with himself, and, most importantly, with his wife. It sets up an interesting reading of the famous "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, which could have revealed impatience even with his wife dying now instead of "hereafter" while his life creeps in a petty pace day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. Instead, Keegan's Macbeth falls to the ground in a shock of grief and then goes all King Lear, a raging madman on the heath. What had been a steadily simmering psychological stew suddenly boils over, and whether intended or not, Macbeth himself here becomes "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage."

Hecate with right arm outstretched into the sky, her left hand on the shoulder of one of the two witches kneeling at her feet, the third witch with hands clasped looking up in wonder at whatever Hecate is seeing; one of the theater's chandeliers is in the background.
Hecate (Chris Johnston) and the three Weird Sisters (Jonathan Holtzman, left, Patrick Midgley, and Gregory Jon Phelps, standing) in Macbeth. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

Whereas Macbeth is wrestling with a mind full of scorpions, reality comes into clear focus for Fallon's Lady Macbeth—"Naught's had, all's spent, where our desire is got without content," she says. Knowing what she's truly lost (the loving attention of her husband) and then concluding she can't get it back ultimately drives her to depression. Her nightmare takes her to the very moment when they turned their lives inside out. "What a sigh is there!" says the doctor (Allison Glenzer) observing Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, and for all the spooking moments this production offers up, Fallon's threefold "sigh" is a wail that rattles the walls of your stomach.

Typical of this company, the players double parts (Lauren Ballard gets triple children duty, turning in a charmingly innocent Fleance, an audacious Young Macduff, and a brave-in-spite-of-his-obvious-fear Young Siward), but several parts across the course of the play have been linked into one significant character: Seyton, Macbeth's aide at Dunsinane, played by Gregory Jon Phelps. He is the Macbeths' servant in the earlier scenes, and through him, we see the first indication of Macbeth's psychological division from his wife in the way Phelps's behavior displays more obvious loyalty to the king than to the queen. He becomes the Third Murderer in the attack on Banquo. Banquo kills one of the murderers, Phelps's character kills Banquo, and then he kills the other murderer. (Nice staging moment here: this scene comes right before intermission, but the three dead bodies remain on stage; as the audience lingers or heads to the bar cart on stage, Phelps re-emerges and one by one drags his fellow actors off stage.) As Third Murderer Phelps slit Banquo's throat, but he becomes the text's First Murderer when he describes this act to Macbeth in the banquet scene (we see how thoroughly a cutthroat he is when Thornton as Banquo's ghost, zombie-like, haunts the table). Preceding the attack on Macduff's castle, Phelps enters as the messenger coming to warn Lady Macduff, and then, per stage direction, he exits; but the exit turns out to be his reconnoitering the house, for he returns under the speech heading of First Murderer. All of this is extra-textual, perhaps, but stringing these characters together instead of simply having one actor play six different parts creates a fascinating character of most cruel loyalty; Macbeth can't become the despot he does without people like Phelps's Seyton et al.

It illustrates that Macbeth has not mentally disintegrated; though thanes flee Scotland he maintains his iron rule on the nation. Macbeth is still, generally, the same war hero as the man at the opening of the play; he's just become increasingly "rapt" in his attempts to outmaneuver his fate, but without the psychological shackels of conscience. No matter: he's already lost at the odds.

Eric Minton
June 27, 2014

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