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Macbeth — Arden Theatre

Macbeth_1_hiIan Merrill Peakes’s Macbeth at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre shows less ambition than dissatisfaction. Nothing is ever good enough for him. He can’t be content with what he has.

When Banquo challenges the witches to declare whether they’re illusions or human and then inveighs them to speak, Peakes’s Macbeth, a wary stage-right listener to that point, is visibly unhappy when he hears he shall be King of Scotland, but Banquo, though never king, will be progenitor of generations of monarchs, dozens of them. He expresses more agitation at the prophecy of him having a fruitless household than he conveys joy, or even curiosity, about the prediction he will be a future king. Once he possesses the crown he killed to attain, he cannot enjoy it until he has the fealty of all around him. When that can’t be totally obtained, he seizes property and goes on a despotic, murderous course that breeds rebellion.

Yes, Macbeth and his wife plan Duncan’s death. Yes, his dooming of Banquo is motivated more by fear than by any conceivable gain or rational displeasure. Peakes yet communicates a restlessness, and an idea that nothing ever works out to his liking, more than he suggests a man who is driven to take control of his own destiny and perform treacherous acts to hasten his advancement.

Peakes’s Macbeth holds your attention and provides some fine dramatic moments, but he never makes you care if he succeeds as king or moves you to horror at what he may do next as a petty, merciless, vindictive, bloodthirsty tyrant.

Director Alexander Burns’s production of “Macbeth” for the Arden is respectable enough. It keeps you watching and entertains, but its passion and fireworks are more in James Sugg’s sound design or Brian Sidney Bembridge’s stark black, black set than in anything that happens because of the text and texture of Shakespeare’s play.

This is a difficult “Macbeth” to denote fully because it so plainly reveals the various themes and conflicts of the tragedy without creating the tension, suspense, or emotion to take the production beyond being competently and divertingly straightforward. The most effective scene in Burns’s staging is the comic sequence in which the southgate porter is awakened, deep in both sleep and inebriation, by Macduff’s incessant knocking at Macbeth’s castle door. Christopher Patrick Mullen does a masterful bit of clowning as he censures callers who would arrive in the middle of the night and as he explains to those callers the three things good liquor does to a man, as well as a fourth thing that impedes his carnal pleasure. On opening night, even Burns’s decision to include the Arden audience in the “Knock, knock, who’s there?” gambit, was successful in Mullen’s capable hands.

“Macbeth” may harbor a few other jokes and laughs, but for the main part, it is serious business, and Burns stresses the darkness of the play by the practically patent leather black gleam of his stage, which looks like it is  composed of stone slate that has been painted jet and polished to a glassy sheen. The walls of Bembridge’s set are also black, which makes it somewhat stunning when floor-length red draperies are lowered from the rafters to decorate Macbeth’s castle.

Burns makes considerable attempts to establish atmosphere and give his “Macbeth” some density, but neither fog on the moors, the creative use of darkness, nor the holes from which the weird sisters emerge catapult the production from being commendable to being outstanding. The happy news is Burns’s “Macbeth” contains no glitches or passages that make you wonder about the director’s choices. This staging is solid, yeomanlike work that engages your eyes and ears but never grabs you by throat or moves you to an extreme response. Given scenes momentarily increase intensity, for instance the one which Macbeth returns from the slain Duncan’s chambers and explains why he killed the grooms who were supposed to protect the king from harm. Peakes is particularly passionate in this sequence and looks as if he may bring his performer to a new level. Another scene, the celebration in which Banquo’s ghost taunts Macbeth, is staged with great naturalness and integrity and eclipses most of the 50 or so renditions I’ve seen of this sequence, but while certain passages earned my admiration, nothing stirred my juices or heightened my unwavering but matter-of-fact interest in what was happening on the Arden stage.

I don’t want to give the impression that Burns’s “Macbeth” is bland or pedestrian or that Peakes does anything less than a praiseworthy job in the title role. That would be false and misleading. For all of its virtues, and there are several — the performances of Mullen and Aimé Donna Kelly among them — this creditable production never finds a launching point from which it can soar from laudable to enthralling. No matter how inventive or involving it gets, it always stays curiously and firmly earthbound.

Burns’s “Macbeth” forgoes the current penchant for starting the play with the passage in which the wounded soldier tells about Macbeth and Banquo’s feats on the battlefield. It begins where Shakespeare does, with the weird sisters and stays with them, cutting out the scene with the soldier and the exposition that follows it.

This economy turns out to be wise. Burns has the witches remain on stage and move from their opening queries about meetings and mischief to their dance in a circle that foreshadows their meddling with Macbeth to see what they can inveigh him to do.

We therefore meet Macbeth before we see the other nobles and before his exploits are reported in heroic language to the king, Duncan, by a man who reverently testifies to Macbeth’s ability as a warrior.

Macbeth and Banquo enter from the upper stage-right corner, see the sisters, and comment on whether they are human and of the Earth or some kind of supernatural mutation. Banquo is the one who asks them directly who are they and what business they have on the heath. Played straightforwardly by Ben Dibble, Banquo engages the sisters in conversation while Peakes’s Macbeth, now at the about the far right midpoint of the circular stage, listens in a stance that seems to back away from the witches and anything they represent. He looks apprehensive and suspicious rather than amused and amiably demanding, as Dibble’s Banquo is.

This scene, staged so thoughtfully, and so good at showing the contrasting behavior of Banquo and Macbeth in this instant, is the first sign the Arden “Macbeth” may engage but not rivet. The work on stage is admirable, but it remains at a distance. You appreciate what Burns, Peakes, Dibble, and the witches — E. Ashley Izard, Aimé Donna Kelly, and Mary Tuomanen — do, but the reaction stays on an intellectual plane and doesn’t ignite the emotions.

Peakes is contemplative when you see him before he heads home to Inverness to entertain Duncan and his train. He is already thinking about how to make the witch’s prophecy about his ascendance to the throne come true, and already considering and reconsidering his treasonous maunderings as unseemly and unfit, especially now that Duncan has named his son, Malcolm, as the Duke of Cumberland, his heir apparent. In the meantime, Macbeth has had time to jot a detailed letter to his wife informing her of the witch’s auguries and how he now stands, as they said he would, as the Thane of Cawdor.

NealBoxWe suspend disbelief at the miracle it would have taken to compose and deliver that letter with the speed that it would have required to have it arrive and be digested before Macbeth arrives at Inverness. No matter. It sets up of the most important scenes in all of Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth reading the news and knowing exactly what she intends to do in response to it.

This is a meaty scene that gives actresses playing Lady M. a lot of leeway to determine an attitude towards the devilry she has in mind and to show the audience just how plotting, enthusiastic, and husband-doubting she is.

Judith Lightfoot Clarke fits in with the tone of Burns’s production. She is clear in speech and intention. Her Lady M. obviously enjoys the deadly coincidence of Duncan, whose corpse is one that must be o’erleaped, coming to dine and rest under her battlements. She is one to take “the nearest way” to attain what she craves. We know from her every syllable Duncan is doomed. But, again, we are unmoved. This Lady M. is resolved, determined even, to go ahead with regicide. She is scary in the icy way she expresses her impatience for the assassination to take place, Yet adept as Lightfoot Clarke is in getting Lady M.’s point across, she is not engrossing. We raise an eyebrow. We know the lady for what she is, but we are not terrified nor particularly inclined to pity Duncan for landing in such a rat’s nest as Inverness is bound to be.

Macbeth enters, and Lady M. berates him for being faint of heart, for exhibiting that “milk of human kindness” she worries about during her soliloquy. He has his own private moments when he repeats his misgivings and gives reasons why he should not proceed with his bloody plan. Peakes delineates Macbeth’s deliberations well, in lighting by Solomon Weisbard that makes the setting seem uncertain and claustrophobic.

Duncan, meanwhile, has heaped praises on Macbeth and honored him as a loyal kinsman and valiant soldier.

Peakes continues his clarity in the “Is this a dagger…?” scene and in his show of amity during a brief conversation with Banquo. He and Lightfoot Clarke are also effective in the scene following Duncan’s murder, from Macbeth’s report of the deed to Lady M. returning after stashing the gory knives and smearing the chamber grooms with Duncan’s blood.

You see. No complaint. Burns’s production runs like clockwork, has some evocative effects, and is competently acted. It is not a sterile production. It isn’t bland. Why then is it not moving or captivating? Why does it never get beyond ‘good’?

The best individual scene in the production, as noted, is Mullen’s turn as the porter who is too soused to be dutiful or courteous and who discourses so eloquently on reddened noses, sleep, and urine to a hurried Macduff and others who have arrived, behind their time, to accompany Duncan onward.

The following scene is also strong. Peakes seems legitimately surprised and betrays no guilt, or even knowledge of foul play, when it is announced Duncan has been slain. Lightfoot Clarke does her part by fainting persuasively. Meanwhile, Peakes displays true power and texture when he answers the dourly efficient Macduff by asking, “Who could refrain that had a heart to love, and in that heart, courage to make his love known?”

There’s passion, and no dissembling in Macbeth’s report of what he saw in the anteroom of Duncan’s bedchamber. Peakes speaks to the entire assembly, to the princes, Malcolm and Donalbain, and to his peers, Banquo, Ross, and Macduff with solemn earnestness. It impresses. It doesn’t move.

Throughout this production, fine moments occur. The banquet sequence haunted by the newly slain Banquo is expertly done. You believe a festive gathering is in progress and see Macbeth dissolve into incoherent irrationality each time Dibble’s Banquo appears from under his party visor. Aimé Donna Kelly makes the scene in which Macduff’s castle is raided uncommonly harrowing given the general equanimity the staging engenders. Hecate’s appearance, and upbraiding of the witches, is effective as she rises high above the stage and makes her scolding pronouncements from that lofty, commanding position. E. Ashley Izard is plaintively sincere as she tells a doctor how troubled she is by Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. Peakes basks for a second in Macbeth’s invincibility when the witches tells him about men of women born and Birnham Wood coming to Dunsinane. He recoils just as palpably when the sisters stage a pageant showing the unending lines of Banquo’s progeny who will ascend the Scottish throne. Swordfights with Young Siward and Macduff are intense and well played.

So, once again, and for the last time, why can I take this creative, well-played “Macbeth” so much in my stride? What was needed to propel it to greatness?

I don’t know. For all the thought I’ve given these questions, nothing comes to me that Burns could have done that would make a difference. Maybe it’s a matter of time. Maybe by opening night, the production had not jelled.

Peakes, perhaps, could have been a more formidable, more commanding Macbeth. You see his conscience at work in the early scenes when he tries to shake off his murderous ideas and shun harm to Duncan, especially as the king is a guest under his roof. I don’t think you see enough torment or get a sense that Macbeth is a special man, a man of action, a man of destiny. Peakes does not rise above the multitude the way Macbeth should. You don’t see the might and the energy that allowed a great general to fight two distinct and separate battles in the same day and vanquish both foes conclusively.

That may be the crux. As I think about this production, and paragraphs come slowly as I do, it dawns that only Mullen and Kelly rose above Shakespeare’s literal text to give their characters full dimension. Everyone is Burns’s company is solid in his or her performance. Each understands his or her character and finds the right tone and cadence to deliver his or her lines or perform his or her stage business, but no character beyond the porter and Lady Macduff lights a spark or rivets you to a moment. Even the laudably well-done banquet scene is an example of efficiency and effectiveness more than one that bites into the soul and makes you share Macbeth’s terror as he encounters the latest of his butcheries, Banquo stabbed 30 times, and has to come to grips with this spectral manifestation of his iniquity.

Admiration is a good thing, and Burns, Peakes, and the “Macbeth” company earn it. I’m sorry I can’t be more complimentary. I’d love to be. Who knows? Perhaps I was watching all so intently and with such an analytical eye, I was the one who stayed earthbound as opposed to the production.

Ben Dibble, Josh Carpenter, Terence MacSweeny, and Christopher Patrick Mullen, when he appears as Duncan and Siward are all professional and proficient in their roles, but like the production in general, do not illuminate their characters or go beyond capably enacting their dramatic function. Their Banquo, Malcolm, Macduff, etc. are all competent and skillfully portrayed, but they don’t create tension that registers to the house.

Judith Lightfoot Clarke earns the same stingy praise. She embodies Lady Macbeth and plays her part beautifully in the scenes following the discovery of Duncan’s murder, when she wittily feigns swooning, and at the banquet, when she musters consistent composure and poise to make sense of Macbeth’s psychotic eruption, but she never affects one’s emotions in any direction.

While Peakes and Lightfoot Clarke converse avidly and form a tight league, you don’t see their ardor as a couple. In fact, none of the characters seems to be especially close to any other. You get no sense of intimacy from the Macbeths, from Macbeth and Banquo, or from Macduff and his legions. A scene between Kelly as Lady Macduff and Yannick Haynes as her precocious son may convey the greatest bond any characters share.

Ashley Izard, Aimé Donna Kelly, and Mary Tuomanen do well as the witches. Their incantations have a sense of ritual, they are truly menacing to Macbeth, and take noticeable pleasure in taunting him.

Carl Clemons-Hopkins displays welcome magnitude as Ross. Sean Bradley, Jahzeer Terrell, and Ian Bedford acquit themselves well in small roles.

The shiny, leathery blackness of Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set denoted the dark tone Burns sought for his production. The large round platform looked sleek and as if it was covered by polished black alligator skin. Pieces and traps are neatly removed to provide steps and holes from which the weird sisters can appear.

Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes were, blessedly, in keeping with a classical period. Peakes’s Macbeth was handsome in his black raiment, and Lightfoot Clarke was striking in Lady M.’s red gown. James Sugg unleashed the sounds of war and the noises of a busy, anxious castle in which a distant clatter, like the dropping of a dagger, could be ominous. Solomon Weisbard’s lighting added to the handsomeness and clarity of Burns’s staging. Paul Dennhardt gets some excitement going with his bold fight choreography.

“Macbeth” runs through Sunday, April 19, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street (2nd and Church, just north of Christ Church), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 10:30 a.m. Tuesday (and Wednesday, March 25, Thursday, March 26, April 9, and April 23 — Shakespeare’s birthday — and deathday, and Friday, April 24), 7 p.m. Tuesday (and Sunday, April 19), 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No 8 p.m. show is scheduled for Thursday, March 26. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.

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