SCS’ Macbeth

By Philip PearceSC_Shakespeare_Macbeth_1_72dpi

SANTA CRUZ SHAKESPEARE’S third offering of the summer is a feminist Macbeth that’s strong on violent action and storm effects but falls short in its human relationships.

Director Kirsten Brandt’s program notes say the production is set in medieval Scotland, but she obviously hasn’t aimed for a slavish historic accuracy. It’s a mythical Scotland wiped clean of gender stereotypes where a princess can trump her prince brother in succeeding to the throne and some characters like Banquo, Ross and Mentieth have become women. As the evening ends, we see Macbeth’s ruthless reign of terror give way to a brighter future with the coronation of Queen Malcolm.

We start, of course, with those Three Weird Sisters. Anything but “secret, black and midnight hags,” they are an attractively dressed trio of woodland nature goddesses, whose first entrance is accompanied by an angry male voiceover condemning witchcraft in non-Shakespearean words that sound less like medieval Scotland than Puritan New England. While this is happening, brawny male brutes kick and haul the witches around the stage. It’s an interesting enough reminder of chauvinist atrocities like the Salem witch trials but it has nothing to do with anything that happens in the rest of the play, where the three witches continue to work their mischief unthreatened, unopposed and with a royal seal of approval.

Casting of Banquo as a female soldier gives us some new insights into the character, but when Greta Wohlrabe in a pair of black tights deftly wields her sword she’s more like a modern blockbuster action hero than a feisty Scotch thane. When her ghost faced off with Macbeth on top of a party table-top, the opening night audience couldn’t help laughing and neither could I.

Major action sequences like Banquo’s murder and the slaughter of Macduff’s family are carried off with a lot of dash and punctuated by some terrifying storm effects. What is missing is an effective offering of the words Shakespeare wrote to give significance to the terrible events happening on stage. Brandt and her cast seem to have set out to avoid conventional Shakespearean histrionics and oratory. Fair enough, but do what you like with the plot, in Shakespeare it’s only if you care about the words that anybody watching is really going to care about the characters and what’s happening to them.

Macbeth’s tragedy is that he never fools himself. Once pushed by his ambitious and sexy wife into the murder of King Duncan, he dives headlong into evil knowing from start to finish exactly what he’s doing. But Steve Pickering is such a restrained and matter-of-fact Macbeth that his early soliloquies are more like carefully prepared public explanations than terrifying inner struggles with damnation. The famous “Is this a dagger?” soliloquy is spoken not to the imaginary dagger but to the audience with the measured logic of someone analyzing a pie chart in a board room. When he later insists “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” it sounds as casual as a passing grumble about a minor headache.

By the time Pickering finally grits his teeth and decides to get dark and serious, it’s too late. How can you suddenly start caring about the troubles of someone who’s shown earlier that he cares so little about them himself?

Things work a bit better with Lady Macbeth. A major virtue of this flawed production is that it recognizes that Macbeth isn’t married to some comic strip Dragon Lady but to a perceptive, charming, ambitious beauty whom he loves passionately. The strong physical attraction of the couple’s first meeting after his return from battle for once hits all the right notes. A big part of the tragedy is the pathetic collapse of this strong marriage.

In the moments before Macbeth arrives, Melinda Parrett rather underplays Lady Macbeth’s prayer for satanic powers to strengthen her for the coming murder. Parrett mixes this verbal restraint with sudden jerks and twists of her body that suggest Lady Macbeth is more the victim than the initiator of this ugly satanic pact. It’s an interesting idea but the depth and horror of the written lines get lost in some temporarily effective staging. It’s much the same with the famous sleepwalking scene, which is scenically vivid but pallidly spoken. Then she ends it with a long howl of pain and guilt that’s the most terrifying moment of the evening.

There’s a lot of strong action but the general tendency to gabble or mutter makes most of the characters seem shallow and smaller than life. Exceptions are Toby Onwumere, who shouts or wails a lot as Macduff, and Josh Saleb, who orates as Angus.

The production continues in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing and The Liar in the UC Santa Cruz Glen through August.

Melinda Parrett and Steve Pickering. Photo by rr jones.