All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Hedgerow Theatre’s spare, straightforward production of “Macbeth” requires some thought. Director Dan Hodge has cut Shakespeare’s play, elided characters, and imposed some unique interpretations, including one that would answer a riddle puzzled over in centuries of doctoral theses.
Hodge’s is a direct, point blank “Macbeth” with a compact text and few frills. He joins poet Robert Browning and architect Mies van der Rohe in espousing “less is more” as an artistic philosophy. At the same time, the staging is high concept, Hodge employing a particular time and limiting space to allow his production to concentrate more on palace intrigue that the broader themes of leadership and royal accession. The show works best when it adheres most to Shakespeare and illuminates a speech or scene by presenting it simply and intimately, letting actors and their lines do the work. It goes awry when Hodge decides to put his own spin on matters, not because Shakespeare can’t be adapted or toyed with, but because what Hodge proposes takes some the self will and, therefore, much of the tragedy from “Macbeth.”
Pared down to essentials though it is, Hodge’s production has no flow. It is cumbersome to follow. It seems to play in a staccato rhythm rather than rising to a crescendo. Also by bringing the action so close and playing so much of it to the house, Macbeth is exposed clearly and early as a villain. The incentive to go against him comes too soon. We have no reason to try and understand Macbeth or to want him to prevail in spite of what he see and know about him. He elicits no pity, and terror derives from Macbeth’s tyranny, not from our fear of how much destruction he may cause to Scotland and to himself.
The production becomes a mixed bag, with the most traditional scenes registering the strongest, and the most conceptual scenes being more interesting for what they reveal about Hodge’s thought process than what they add to the play.
Simplicity wrought the most stirring effect. Jared Reed intoning a soliloquy, Susan Wefel telling a doctor about Lady Macbeth’s unsettling behavior, Zoran Kovcic personifying reason as Ross, or Rebecca Cureton realizing her fate as Lady Macduff have more impact than any scene that features violence and mayhem. The more human Hodge keeps the show, the better and more movingly it plays. Wefel, in her small part as Lady Macbeth’s handmaid, excites more concern and engenders more sympathy, than the Scottish lords in exile grumbling about and plotting against Macbeth. Cureton is heartbreaking. It’s the small, not the large, that speaks volumes at Hedgerow, but while Hodge conclusively demonstrates that the play’s quieter moments deserve attention, crucial, complicated scenes such as Macbeth’s disturbing behavior at a court dinner or the confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff have no fire. They don’t do their job in having the audience share their significance. The dinner scene evolves too quickly. It causes more confusion to the audience than to Macbeth’s guests. You have to know the play well to comprehend all that is happening. The showdown between the warring thanes is too clipped, too dry, too matter-of-fact to have any tension, let alone majesty that can trigger emotion. The balance of the production is out of kilter. The quality of individual scenes does not translate to the whole. To quote another play, time is out of joint, and some important business doesn’t get the emphasis or clarity it requires.
As irony would have it, the production starts excellently. A bloody soldier appears, wounds gaping, breathing difficult. He tells the story of the Thane of Glamis’s treachery and Macbeth’s heroism to a group that surrounds him. Instead of others in the Scottish army, the group is the three witches. Hodge sets his production during a 20th century war, from the trappings, World War I, and the witches are camp followers who, like Thenardier in “Les Miserables,” pick salvage off corpses for profit, including a gold chain from the soldier telling Macbeth’s tale. You can’t see the witches’ faces. They are covered by gas masks that make them look like mischievous possums.
So much is established in the first five minutes, one expects a production that will fascinate. By having the witches hear about Macbeth and his attainment of Glamis’s title, Hodge provides them with a motive to choose Macbeth as their foil and to tease him about glories to come. Also the single wounded soldier gives Shakespeare’s story immediacy beyond the playwright’s words. A mood and tone has been set.
Hodge has also foreshadowed one of his ideas that will come clear later, the use of one actor, playing someone who is usually a minor, barely noticed character, coming to the fore and being front and center in several of the play’s most critical scenes. The gold locket also has ongoing significance.
Intensity is maintained with the entrance of Jared Reed as Macbeth and Joel Guerrero as Banquo. The actors easily establish the bond that exists between the soldiers. Macbeth and Banquo are close allies and trusted friends. Guerrero is particularly nervy in the way he chides the witches for favoring Macbeth with a bright future but saying nothing about him. Once Duncan and his entourage arrive, and Hodge has neatly and satisfactorily dispatched their business, Reed turns the production hypnotic again. His soliloquy about the witches’ prophesy is done with clarity that told the audience what it needed to know about Macbeth’s thoughts and set the scenes to come in motion.
Reed was a different Macbeth, a refreshing Macbeth. He did not take a soldierly stance or declaim. Looking young and calm after a battle he was confident would go his way, Reed is a natural, plain-speaking Macbeth. His appearing as a regular person contemplating the flurry of a day’s events makes Macbeth likeable and his thoughts about Duncan and ruling the kingdom a justifiable result of hearing his predicted fortune and having some of it come true.
Muddiness begins when the action moves to Inverness, the castle of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Neither Reed nor Jennifer Summerfield as Lady M. do anything wrong. The production takes on a speed and efficiency that keep the Macbeths’ conspiracy from building tension, creating discomfort, and yes, eliciting pity or terror. It seems like the time between Lady Macbeth reading the letter telling of her husband’s advancement, the witches’ prediction, and Duncan’s approach and the time the porter is complaining about an early knock at the gate are within seconds of each other. The mood, the texture so carefully laid and so palpably present in the first three scenes has vanished. You hear, but you don’t see the Macbeths coming together, moving apart, and agreeing again on their action. You get a sense of Macbeth’s reluctance, but it’s not a strong one, not even when Reed almost restores intensity with his soliloquy about why he should not murder his king. Lady Macbeth looks like a termagant in the planning scenes. It would appear she, and not Macbeth, has the flaw of vaunting ambition. Most of all, you don’t see a connection in the Macbeths. She’s all joy, he’s all rue in conspiracy. Never, though, is there a meeting of the minds or a chance for Reed and Summerfield to construct a discernible relationship for the Macbeths. As the tension oozes out during the scenes leading to Duncan’s murder and its discovery, the atmosphere in the theater changes from hot to neutral, and the feeling of portent never returns.
Questions are raised in the scenes following Macbeth’s investiture as King. As a joke I asked myself where Duncan’s younger son, Donalbain, was, but that answer was easy. Hodge had made several cuts. If I didn’t know Donalbain was part of the dramatis personae, I never would have noticed his absence. But what about Malcolm, who we saw Duncan name the heir apparent. Played by Andrew Parcell, he seems to flee without cause. Ross and Macduff effectively do the work Shakespeare assigns to a gaggle of nobles, but Macduff walks by necessity with a cane and is too old to be equal to Macbeth on a battlefield. As good a job as Brian McCann does with Macduff, you have to wonder at the casting.
Of course, some of that is answered later, the World War I setting and the weaponry it affords being the key to how Hodge intends to have Macduff confront Macbeth.
Around the time of Macbeth’s ascendance, it’s also clear that the character of Seyton, practically inconsequential in Shakespeare’s text, is as close an assistant to the new king as Jack Lew is to Barack Obama. You begin to notice Seyton everywhere. He, as portrayed with apt mystery by David Blatt, is particularly eerie as an ominous and relatively humorless porter. Once you see him in subsequent roles, you realize he’s been a figure on the landscape at almost every critical passage. Later on, Hodge assigns Seyton a role that plausibly solves an ages-old conundrum surrounding the murder of Banquo. In ways, Hodge uses Seyton like a fourth witch, an interesting prospect but one that is not developed fully enough.
Speed and editing knock the Hedgerow production off course. Individual moments, some noted, and the occasions Reed has for addressing the audience solus, become the most meaningful. Also a tip of the pointed black hat to the withces — Wefel, Cureton, and Lily Dwoskin — for the wonderful diction and involving ritual in their scenes. Kudos to Hodge, too in crafting the “Double Double” sequence with the witches putting their spoils from the battlefield into a soldier’s helmet.
One element Hedgerow may want to change mid-production is the single thing that mars the witches’ scenes. Remember it’s World War I, so the witches play a Victrola to issue Macbeth his warnings about Macduff, his invulnerability to all men born of women, and his assurance about Dunsinane and Birnam Wood. Unfortunately, the recording is muddled. It sounds as if a deejay has slowed it down to a deep, drawling groan. The words are unintelligible. Even I, who know them, had to think about what the record was saying. I was appalled once I realized the audience would never get such important clues to the play and Macbeth’s behavior because they could not decipher them.
The Victrola gimmick has to go.
Perhaps with more time, the entire Hedgerow production could have been as grand as its first 20 minutes. Alas, in spite of good sequences throughout, Hodge’s mounting loses focus and with it, audience interest.
John Lopes makes a distinguished Duncan but is more moving as the doctor tending Lady Macbeth, a part that is usually perfunctory. Lopes and Susan Wefel make a transition scene into one of the best in the show.
Although he has no lines, Eli Dietrich is a sturdy and likeable Fleance you are happy to see get away from villains who would do him harm.
“Macbeth” runs through November 17 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $25, with discounts for seniors and students, and can be ordered by calling 610-565-4211 or going online to www.hedgerowtheatre.org.