All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Patrick Mulcahy’s production of “Macbeth” for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival takes a sharp turn for the better when Ian Bedford, as Shakespeare’s title character, launches into the soliloquy in which Macbeth has his last struggle with conscience, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”
Until then, Mulcahy’s Macbeth is competent but standard, a straightforward reading with no special magnitude and no compelling intensity. Bedford and Susan Riley Stevens, as Lady M., seem as if they’ll ride the PSF audience through Shakespeare’s tragedy ably but without distinction. Jacob Dresch, as Malcolm, and Anthony Lawton, as Banquo, look as if they will give some style and atmosphere to the production, but the early expectation is for the academic and the mundane.
So much for first impressions!
After “Is this a dagger,” all changes towards the engrossing. Bedford, steady but bland in opening scenes, reveals an introspection that is deep, intelligent, and engaging. His voice acquires new shades and new urgency. Shakespeare provides previous evidence of Macbeth’s misgivings about killing Scotland’s king, Duncan, to fulfill witches’ predictions that he will sit on Duncan’s throne, but in an important transition, Bedford fleshes out the Bard’s words and lets you see his character’s internal turmoil. He conveys the contemplation, personality, and authority that were lacking, even in a critical preceding scene with Stevens. His Macbeth suddenly has levels and facets that were spoken but not displayed. Spurred by Lady Macbeth, he has expressed and coped with his ambivalence. A decision has been made that leads to something done that can’t be undone, and Bedford affectingly portrays the psychology that fosters Macbeth’s doubts and that foments his choice to commit a bloody, treacherous deed.
The actor never loses the intensity he establishes while contemplating his act against Duncan. Whatever Macbeth’s posture, mood, or attitude, Bedford gives it texture and dimension.
Stevens follows suit. In her first scenes, Stevens looked as if she was still considering how she would present Lady Macbeth as she ponders and settles on assassination and encourages her husband to execute their murderous plot. As if Bedford’s sudden dramatic fervor was contagious, Stevens’s Lady M. becomes more complex and more determined as the couple basks in their foul deed. You feel her nervousness and impatience, both mingled with giddiness, as she waits for Macbeth to return from his brutal work. You see her taking on a steeliness that will carry husband and wife through their ordeal of hiding their crime. You realize a sensibility and passion that wasn’t there at the beginning, not even when Steven chilled in her reading of the line, “We fail,” as Macbeth asks what will befall the couple if their plan misfires and leads to their exposure.
Neither Bedford nor Stevens ever makes you wonder about their ability to bring strength to their characters again. They don’t miss a cue, or leave a clue, as they behave with unexaggerated normality when they are apprised of Duncan’s death. They conspire to create the best banquet scene, the one in which Banquo appears as a ghost, I’ve seen in a long time. And they sidle in to the aftermath of their act against Duncan by devolving into guilt and madness (Lady M.) and a combination of self-assurance, avarice, and jealousy that leads to a calm, if feverish and consciously malicious, practice of tyranny.
Individually and as a pair, Bedford and Stevens assay their characters interestingly. They maintain clarity while showing how the dashing of their expectations, as monarchs and as people, affects them and hastens them to their fates, deserved but dreaded because Bedford and Stevens have drawn us to their side in spite of their horrific act towards their reputedly kind monarch and trusting houseguest.
Dresch and Lawton continue their excellence, Lawton being a noble and formidably honorable Banquo, and are joined in their quality by Perry Ojeda as Macduff, Deanna Gibson as Lady Macduff, Trent Fucci as Ross, and Suzanne O’Donnell as an hilarious Porter who gets all of Shakespeare’s jests and word games just right and even shows the Bard as a devotee of the “Knock Knock” joke.
Ian Bedford looks the brave warrior as Macbeth, although the first time we see him, returning from two fierce battles, the second a surprise, he looks remarkably fresh and unruffled, as does Lawton’s Banquo. His stature and stern look give credence to Macbeth’s status as a great soldier.
His best scenes are the stuff of Macbeth’s tragedy. Following Duncan’s murder, Bedford seems shaken by the deed, even as he reports to Lady M. his steps in committing it.
Real strength comes in the aftermath. Even as Macbeth, calm but for the passion which he says drove him to kill the two guards who were supposed to protect the king, greets the Scottish nobles who will crown him once Duncan’s sons, Malcolm, the nominated heir to the throne, and Donalbain, flee in haste and fear, he foreshadows the haughtiness and contempt with which he’ll reign.
Bedford and Stevens are both excellent at expressing surprise and remaining natural, except for being justifiably moved, at hearing of Duncan’s butchering. Bedford takes on a kingly attitude of sorts. He seems the most commanding, and the most likely to govern, among a group that appears, thanks to Lawton and Ojeda, to have other strong leaders in Banquo and Macduff.
At his castle in Inverness after being crowned at Scone, Macbeth is a restless man who is less interested in new invaders or the welfare of the Scottish people, as Duncan was, as he is an uncomfortable monarch who is not so much wracked with guilt and enmeshed in paranoia.
This is part of Macbeth’s tragedy. He cannot enjoy his gain, not because it is ill-gotten but because, having murdered for advancement, he is not secure that his royal position won’t be taken away as violently or by virtue of suspicions some, such as Banquo, might rightfully have about his behavior.
Mulcahy chooses to emphasize the psychology of Macbeth in the PSF production, and Bedford carries out his theme by being a calculating, vengeful monarch.
You see his wariness. He looks on all around him suspiciously, especially Banquo who is aware of the witches’ pronouncements. Bedford’s Macbeth is a person who cannot possibly be at peace or feel his crown to be firmly upon his head while he is afraid he has enemies who can accuse him of foul play.
As Macbeth’s behavior becomes more quirky and imperial, he has reason to be cautious about others in his realm. Bedford is convincing and unrepentant, even while in a way lamenting, about the grasping greed that has turned Macbeth from a worthy kinsman and able steward of this duty as a Scottish thane to a tyrant.
You may not totally pity Bedford’s Macbeth, but you’ll understand his angst and witness his mental and moral decline. You may fear the terror Macbeth spreads throughout Scotland. You may wonder at the misuse of his power and the path that turns a good and useful man into a scourge that forces others to take arms against him. That’s because Bedford’s portrayal is so complete.
Bedford does not play only a character. He plays a man. You can see the combination of determination, scorn, and worry on his face as he plans his assault on Banquo. You can read his displeasure when he learns Banquo’s son, Fleance, lives. His face and more measured way of speaking also reveal a man who is maniacally making others feel his weight as king, Bedford is excellent at playing Macbeth’s internal disarray while outwardly maintaining a royal demeanor.
He is especially canny when he returns to Inverness with visibly new confidence and swagger after a second, sought, encounter with the witches who seem to augur Macbeth’s invulnerability to other humans.
Susan Riley Stevens is a Lady Macbeth who is ready and able to play her part as conspirator and queen until her husband’s decline and withdrawal from partnership affect her in ways that make her dwell on her guilt and, worse than Macbeth’s sleeplessness, cause to her walk in her sleep.
In the scene immediately following Duncan’s murder, Stevens shows you Lady Macbeth’s resolve and lack of sentimentality. She seems elated that her hands, bloody from smearing the faces of Duncan’s guards with the king’s blood, are the same hue as Macbeth’s.
With all that is on Lady M.’s mind, Stevens shows her character’s seemingly unswerving self-possession, practicality, and coolness in realizing she and Macbeth must respond to news of Duncan’s death in a like manner as people who are surprised by it. Lady M. is careful to see that she and her husband look as through they are awakened from their bed when Duncan’s corpse is discovered. She craftily feigns a faint — Look to the lady! — while easily behaving as if she had no part in causing what happened to Scotland’s king.
That regal, unbetraying stance remains an important element in Stevens’s performance. At first unaffected by the stings that prick at her more sensitive, more burdened husband, Stevens’s Lady Macbeth is every inch a queen who looks to be enjoying her role and fulfilling it with grace and grandeur.
She does not suffer any pangs for taking what she wanted and presides over Inverness with effortless comportment and style.
The different ranges of conscience and fear between the Macbeths register best in the banquet scene when the attitudes of the monarchs collide disastrously. Lady Macbeth is ready and eager to entertain the nobles and show them the bounty of the royal table as an example of the generosity the king and queen will have towards their subjects, especially the nearest and most noble.
Stevens is all cordiality and merriment. When Macbeth has his fits at seeing the ghost of the recently slain Banquo, Stevens’s Lady M. adroitly covers and tries her best to keep matters in order.
Bedford gives no signs Macbeth’s terror at seeing Banquo’s gory locks will abate. He can no longer pretend at normality or innocence. His fear of being discovered as a villain is coming to fruition in front of a stunned audience that must be dismissed by the rational Lady M. rather than risk more exposure or a full confession from her unglued husband.
The scene, one of the hardest and one that usually suffers from being comme-il-faut or over- or underdone, works with dramatic precision in Mulcahy’s production. The director has placed the right number of people at Inverness’s banquet table and let his actors do the work.
Anthony Lawton contributes by being a relentless Banquo who stares straight ahead at Macbeth with an angry and accusing expression and approaches the stricken monarch with an accusing index finger, raised as if to point out the perpetrator of myriad foul crimes.
The scene is a great culmination of all Mulcahy has set in motion and an equally powerful launching point for what is to come, as the recovered Macbeth becomes strong to the point of being undauntable, but more aggressively and less remorsefully evil, and Lady Macbeth, done in by the calamity of the banquet, dissolves into a guilt-ridden shadow of a woman who cannot cleanse nor otherwise purge the deed that initiated her downfall.
Bedford and Stevens react in kind, Bedford becoming a tyrant of monumental proportions and sporting an ego that doesn’t recognize danger or defeat, Stevens shriveling before our eyes, becoming careworn and pitiful as her malaise turns from a report of strange habits to genuine madness and self-destruction. Her sleepwalking scene is quite effective, mainly because it plays so realistically and serves as such as striking contrast between the courageous, if feckless, woman Stevens originally shows us and the remnants of majesty and pluck she displays.
Lawton shows nobility from the start. Even his cajoling of the witches to notice him and to give off extolling Macbeth to tell him a sign of his future, is done with congenial curiosity and not, “hey, what about me?” mockery or disdain.
Lawton’s Banquo is prepared to be a loyal lieutenant to Macbeth. He casts questioning looks at his one-time companion, and is sometimes seen considering the relationship of a situation to the witches’ predictions, but he usually snaps to quickly to look respectfully on Macbeth and to offer his fealty as a subject.
Lawton was Macbeth’s partner in battle and has a warm familiarity and bond with his friend that pre-dates their shared experience with the witches. The actors shows this closeness while also being canny enough to play more distance as Macbeth becomes greater and less available to discuss what happened upon the heath where the men met the witches.
Lawton’s Banquo is the stalwart subject, soldier, friend, and leader you want Macbeth to be. His honor and forthrightness, as conveyed by Lawton, stand in open comparison to Macbeth’s ambitious, impatient, and imperious manner. This is a good, solid performance from an actor who gives his speeches the right classic tone and takes command of the stage physically as well as verbally in the banquet and attack scenes.
Perry Ojeda compounds his sterling comic performance in PSF’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” played in repertory with “Macbeth” by being an admirably competent and leaderlike Macduff.
As in “Lend Me a Tenor,” Ojeda is not showy in his performance. He is again natural in playing a character of complexity and magnitude. He lives his portrayal of Macduff as he embodied his performance as the opera singer, Tito, a man of a much different stripe.
Ojeda is a businesslike Macduff. He feigns nothing, as Macbeth does. He does not have soft edges or a more relaxed side as Banquo does. Macduff acts for the good of Scotland. It is his interest and purpose, blinding him even to the peril in which he puts his wife and children, as he goes abroad to aid the Scottish cause.
Ojeda conveys Macduff’s patriotism and determination. In tandem with Jacob Dresch, he makes the scene in which he reacts to Malcolm’s confession of being a wanton a dramatic duet with a masterful blend of disappointment and disdain. His pause before he grasps all Macbeth has wrought upon his family, gives a human side to Macduff. His fight scene with Macbeth is powerful and exciting.
Jacob Dresch may be the most interesting actor at PSF this year. He has a knack for approaching parts with a difference and finding multi-level line readings.
His Malcolm shows such poise, common sense, and competence, you wonder at Shakespeare’s convenient ploy to have Duncan’s heir flee and relinquish the Scottish crown to Macbeth. His is a Malcolm you may expect to stand his ground, face down any accusations, and initiate investigations into his father’s slaughter, a Malcolm of stature and character.
Dresch shows Malcolm’s princely traits in later scenes. His confession to gaming and womanizing and leading a wild, unaccountable life is convincing and sets up the wonderful byplay I noted between him and Ojeda.
In battle scenes, Dresch shows Malcolm to be a leader and innovator. It is he who suggests cutting down the branches that will bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, and Mulcahy and Dresch make that act of leadership clearer than usual in the PSF production.
The performances of Lawton, Ojeda, and Dresch make it less obvious that Macbeth was the best option to be named king when Duncan fell. They show that Scotland was in good, honorable hands, which makes Shakespeare’s ending more hopeful.
Deanna Gibson shows wisdom and the right level of haughtiness as the abandoned and endangered Lady Macduff. Her bitter relation of her worries and her admonishments to her absent husband clearly spell out her situation. Gibson also shows a gift for Shakespearean language.
My lasting cavil with Mulcahy’s production is the witches. Their voices and often amplified, augmented, and distorted. You always get the gist of what they are doing or saying, but Matthew Given’s sound design often precludes us from hearing Shakespeare’s poetry or jotting down the recipe for the witches’ brew. (Is that fenny snake she’s talking about?)
Luckily, the prophecies in Act One are presented clearly, but the assurances about Birnam Wood and Macbeth being invulnerable to one of woman born are muddy, tricks with sound and haggard images emerging through a trap door seeming to be deemed more important that the witches’ pronouncements.
Suzanne O’Donnell plays several parts and is especially entertaining and enlightening as the southgate porter who has to answer the knocks that drive the Macbeths to (and from) bed and bring Macduff and Ross to Inverness to fetch Duncan.
Trent Fucci does a fine job with Ross, frequently the reporter from whom we learn news of battles, the weather, and political conditions in Scotland.
Thom Weaver’s lighting design includes sequences in which Macbeth is seen in shadows against the proscenium frame, often making Bedford and his character seem larger than life or more threatening. It general, Weaver’s lighting is quite atmospheric and accents the mood and tone of Mulcahy’s staging.
Lisa Zinni used a black-and-white pallette for his costumes, and his clothes, contrary of Shakespeare’s text, fit and suit the characters perfectly. The white dress with the black shawl-like panel coming across to form the right side of the gown’s front is quite striking. I have no critical qualms about but took a personal dislike to the idea of having the bottom half of Macbeth’s sleeves and shirttail dyed black (upon white) and ending in an uneven border above his elbow and at his chest. I am guessing the black was supposed to symbolize all of the blood Macbeth would have accrued on his garments from his soldiering and murdering, but it makes the clothing seem weird and unsettlingly trendy, as if they were supplied by the odious Urban Outfitters. I also wonder at one little shoulder piece constituting Macbeth’s armor and why Macbeth and Banquo go into battle unsleeved (bearing arms with bare arms).
For Malcolm, Macduff, Macduff’s family, Duncan, Ross, and others, Zinni did a fine job.
Bob Phillips’s set was appropriately utilitarian and accommodating all scenes well.
“Macbeth” runs through Sunday, August 3 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at the Labuda Theatre Center of DeSales University, 2755 Station Road, in Center Valley, Pa. The production is in repertory with PSF’s “Lend Me Tenor,” Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday, July 24, Saturday, July 26, Wednesday, July 30, Friday, August 1; and 2 p.m. Saturday, August 2 and Sunday, August 3. Tickets range from $53 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by going online to http://www.pashakespeare.org.