Wednesday, February 9, 2022

ASF: "Macbeth"

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair" is a refrain often repeated or suggested throughout the Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth, showing on the Festival Stage for the next two weeks only. This all-too-short run of the Bard's shortest tragedy, called "the Scottish play" by many superstitious theatre folk, and often considered a compliment to England's first Stuart monarch: James I [James VI of Scotland] who reigned when the play was written c.1606, is an action-packed, visually stunning foray into the realm of a power-obsessed couple that resonates in the 21st Century.

Adroitly directed by Rick Dildine, whose "goal of creating a timeless folktale" is reflected in a mixture of music choices that underscore or compliment the action and costume choices that approximate a number of time periods, this Macbeth's focus on the seductive corruption that power inflicts on its hero can't help but connect us to heads-of-state who are willing to sacrifice anyone who gets in the way of their quest to rule.

Though audiences today say that they go to "see" a play, Elizabethan audiences went to "hear" a play in order to submerge themselves in the sounds and poetic rhythms of the dialogue; so it is a pleasure to hear Shakespeare's words spoken with confidence by such ASF veterans as Greta Lambert, Chris Mixon, Ann Arvia, Chauncy Thomas, and Christopher Gerson -- words that advance the plot, develop character relationships, stress the play's themes, and stimulate audience imagination. -- And this, regrettably, is the only time in this ASF Season to "hear" a classical play.

The "fair is foul" theme contrasts appearance and reality in so many ways: Do the Witches [Ann Arvia, Greta Lambert, April Armstrong] control or merely prophesy events that lead battle-triumphant hero Macbeth [Benjamin Bonenfant] and Lady Macbeth [Meghan Andrews] to murder King Duncan [Christopher Gerson] and set them on their disastrous course? The Macbeths' plan to "...look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under't" underscores the theme. The Witches' prophecies appear to be impossible, but are ironically accurate; and their proclaiming that Banquo [Cordell Cole] is "Lesser than Macbeth and greater./Not so happy, yet much happier/ [because]Thou shall get kings, though thou be none" infects Macbeth and urges him on. Even Duncan's description of Macbeth's castle at Inverness paints a bright and welcoming place that makes the dark and sinister murder even more impactful. Strategically placed just after Duncan's murder, the drunken Porter [a masterful portrayal by Chris Mixon], equivocates with a series of perhaps the first "knock-knock jokes" that testify to the unnatural behavior of the protagonist, and mark a turning point in the action to follow.

As the power-couple, Mr. Bonenfant and Ms. Andrews have a vibrant chemistry; it is clear from the outset that their passions and mutual understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses seem to mark them for greatness, but as their choices to eliminate anyone who gets in their way -- Lady Macduff [Laura Darrell] and her family, for example -- drive them to their respective tragic ends, we witness the numbing effect of their actions, and are horrified by the disintegration of their marriage. Ms. Andrews' "sleepwalking scene" and Mr. Bonenfant's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech encapsulate the degree of their collapse.

As Scotland is falling apart under Macbeth's sway, opposing forces gather; and in a striking scene that elevates them to potential heroic status, Macduff [Justin Blanchard] urges Duncan's heir Malcolm [Anthony Michael Martinez] to take up arms and set things aright, at the same time he hears of the slaughter of his family. -- And the climactic battle makes Macduff victorious and restores the crown to Malcolm, its rightful owner.

Played on a stunning but simple platform set designed by William Boles that affords maximum fluidity of the action, and with dynamic fight choreography by Paul Dennhardt, Mr. Dildine's exciting production of Macbeth provokes ASF audiences to engage with Shakespeare's words and ideas, and to think about them as they apply today. And that's what good theatre ought to do.