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Macbeth — Villanova Theatre at Vasey Theatre

macbeth -- interior v'novaAlthough passages are cut and the story is framed to be a close comparison of the men who might rule Scotland in James J. Christy’s production of “Macbeth” at Villanova Theatre, lack of voice quality and a consequential loss of majesty keep Christy’ staging from hitting its mark. Straightforward in approach, Villanova’s “Macbeth” rarely takes on any dimension. It doesn’t engage or grip you. Its strength, when it has strength, is in individual scenes and performances that stand out from the whole rather than meshing to form a cohesive, compelling look at Scotland in turmoil as a benevolent king is slain and replaced by one whose guilt and paranoia turn him into a tyrant. You see where Christy is heading with his concept, but on this rare occasion, the usually stalwart Villanova troupe does not arrive at its thematic destination. Most of the performances are too pedestrian and too studiedly spoken for this “Macbeth” to take hold.

There are exceptions. Meg Trelease is an interesting, transparent Lady Macbeth who immediately lets you see her role as the architect, instigator, and leader of the Macbeths’ plan to seize the Scottish throne. Trelease’s reading of the letter Macbeth sends to his wife of the witches’ prophecy and his coincidental advance as Thane of Cawdor is revelatory. She hits notes and displays logic most Lady Ms gloss over as they screw their courage to the sticking place. There’s ambition in Trelease’s presentation that supersedes the notions of grandeur, and the nearest way to it, expressed by Kyle Fennie as Macbeth. Throughout the preparation scenes, Trelease’s Lady M dominates. She is intense and fiercely no-nonsense. She shows you what raw ambition looks like and promotes tragic terror with her steely resolve. She will not brook recantation, second thoughts, or sentiment. There’s job to be done, and this Lady M is going to see that it is performed fully and efficiently. Niceties about being a host or a subject are not deterring her.

Trelease maintains the quality of her performance throughout Christy’s production. Her performance in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder is superb, both in the scene in which she notices Macbeth is holding the fatal weapons and goes back to replace them and in the sequence following the discovery of Duncan’s death. Trelease is witty enough to show the audience her strategically timed swoon is counterfeit while convincing us, and the assembled Scottish lords, Lady Macbeth has fainted from the shame of Duncan’s slaughter and demise under her roof.

In the banquet scene, perhaps the best group setting in the production, Trelease maintains the congenial spirit of a hostess and the dignity of a queen while noting her husband’s distracted behavior and attempting to summon some fortitude in him. Her sleepwalking scene in equally excellent. If this “Macbeth” did not accomplish all it intended, it exquisitely showcased the talent of Meg Trelease who conveyed her intelligence and ability to catch one’s ear.

Three other scenes showed the mettle Christy was striving for in his staging. Perhaps the single best sequence in the production is the exchange between Lady Macduff and her precocious child, quickly followed by the destruction of Macduff’s castle and the killing of all that hero’s pretty little chickens and their dam at one fell swoop.

Reality, tension, and empathy are created in this scene. Elise D’Avella is both genuinely miffed and ironically matter-of-fact about her husband’s carelessness when speaking of Macduff’s hasty departure for England and his leaving of no defense and few provisions for his family at a time when Macbeth is known to be ravaging the estates of enemy nobles.

D’Avella elicits pity for her plight, pity that remains even as her Macduff’s child chides her and shows his wit in a shrewd verbal byplay that Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez handles with just the right combination of childlike temerity and her character’s mature grasp of the situation. This sequence entertains while horrifying and boasts of a fluidity much of Villanova’s “Macbeth” lacks.

The group gathering in Inverness’s great hall following Macduff’s discovery of Duncan’s murder is appropriately busy and confused as Macbeth and other courtiers digest the news of the crime, but admirably clear in defining all of the nobles and their stances in the wake of this calamity. Christy is especially careful to separate Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, from the middle of the scene to a stage left position in which they can quietly commune and explain their otherwise baffling exits at a juncture when Malcolm should be claiming his just-bestowed right to succession. Christy’s handiwork here is about the best one can do to get past Shakespeare’s dramaturgical need to get Malcolm out of the way in the neatest, most convenient way possible, facile or not. By spotlighting the orphaned brothers, Christy lets us share in the specious but proffered logic that promulgates Malcolm’s precipitous disappearance.

Malcolm, in this production, is played by Rebecca Jane Cureton, an actress that between her tenures at Hedgerow and Villanova, has shown her versatility and cleverness with line reading and character development. Cureton and Elizabeth Meisenzahl as Macduff rivetingly change the pace and tone of Christy’s production in the scenes in which Malcolm and Macduff discuss the desired merits in a king and Macduff is informed of his castle’s overtaking.

Cureton and Meisenzahl establish an intimacy, a rapport that shows the familiarity between the Scottish nobles and the trust they have in each other, even when that trust is challenged by Malcolm’s invented admissions of wantonness to test Macduff’s honor and loyalty and by Macduff acknowledging the folly of hastening to his political mission while leaving his wife and children unprotected, an act that reinforces Christy’s emphasis on men who will sacrifice all to preserve the integrity and peace of Scotland.

NealBoxThis intimacy is refreshing, in terms of both Christy’s production and general stagings of “Macbeth.” It creates a cocoon of sorts that invites you to listen to dialogue that comes across more as conversation that pronouncement or declaration. Shakespeare’s purpose in creating the Malcolm-Macduff sequences is fulfilled calmly by two men talking rather than declaiming. Byplay, sometimes shrewd and strategic, takes the place of rhetoric. Malcolm and Macduff broach serious matters, but they so do as if they were having a chat. Whatever their prior relationship — One gets the impression that Malcolm, invested as the heir-apparent Prince of Cumberland in Act One, is young and just getting known by the Scottish gentry as a man and anointed leader. — the meeting between them in England seals their bond of mutual admiration and trust.

What’s impressive is how much urgency and important information is conveyed in Malcolm and Macduff’s testing and subtle exchanges. Cureton and Meisenzahl might look as if they are appearing in a different play from everyone else, but they create perhaps the most engrossing 15 minutes in Christy’s “Macbeth” and show that the civil can also be dramatic.

You will have noticed that Malcolm, Macduff, and Macduff’s son are all being played by women. There may be some motive for this, but it is not apparent. Cureton, Meisenzahl, and O’Hanlon-Rodriguez play their roles without winking or paying undue attention to Christy’s gender bending. The director’s choice is innocuous here. It does notcomment on or influence Shakespeare’s play in any visible way (although Cureton as Malcolm could be a way of underscoring a beardless prince’s youth). It’s probably more a move to get more women on stage than the Bard usually prescribes.

Other parts of Christy’s “Macbeth” are less disciplined or too perfunctory or self-consciously aimed to dazzle to make his production exciting or enlightening. Aside from the passages noted, Macbeth’s tale and its consequences for Scotland seem ordinary. The story is told without texture. You see how Christy focuses the audience on the differences between Macbeth, Duncan, Banquo, Malcolm, and Macduff, and their relative fitness to be leaders, but the action seems to play by the numbers. Kyle Fennie’s Macbeth and Dan Cullen’s Banquo don’t establish themselves forcefully enough to engender our interest as more than characters in a story. John K. Baxter doesn’t endow Duncan with traits that signal his virtue and fairness as a king, one who has Scotland’s noblest soldiers singing his praises and who, with the battle Macbeth has helped win, routs dissidents from the kingdom to knit it as one contented nation.

Until Macbeth hears the witches.

The witches in Villanova’s production appear following flashes of bright, blinding light and blaring sounds. The lights are part of a design concept called Brutalism. I’m not a big fan of any “ism,” and this one, although meant to convey the cold, confining atmosphere of an asylum or prison, distracts. It makes a self-conscious, gimmick-for-gimmick’s sake pronouncement. The witches, or weird sisters, have enough going for them without amplification or embellishment. They don’t need to be conceptualized. Shakespeare created them to be eerie, haggard, and prescient no matter how they’re portrayed. Yes, you want to have fun and be theatrical with the witches (a word I can’t type these days without echoing Sean Lally’s giddy delivery of it in the Arden’s current production of Bill Cain’s “Equivocation”). They should on some level be bizarre. But their function in “Macbeth” matters more than their appearance or any ceremonies or ritualization a director can devise for them.

In Christy’s staging, the witches are outsized. Their voices sound recorded and rhythmic in a way that pulls you away from Shakespeare’s text instead of into it. It’s what the witches say, not how they say it, that counts. It’s better if the voices are human and clear. OK, a little “come here my little pretty” heightened pitch can’t hurt, but at Villanova the witches’ speeches are more outsized and overproportioned than outlandish enticing, or unnerving.

The witches seem inaccessible. When Cullen’s Banquo steps towards them to confront them and tease them to obtain a prophecy about his fortunes, it’s almost as if he’s walking into a void.

The sequence is overdone. You can’t wait for it to end, so the meat of “Macbeth” can begin and you can savor the famous speeches and count the still-used sayings in Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Savoring may have to wait until Meg Trelease enters as Lady Macbeth. The voices of Kyle Fennie, Dan Cullen, and John K. Baxter all sound juvenile and uncommanding, a sensation that becomes gratingly apparent because the first line you hear from them is spoken to the right of the stage and is heard before you notice the character delivering it. There’s no warrior on authority in the men’s tone or timbre. Trelease’s Lady M is the first character that makes you want to listen. I realize not everyone in the Villanova audience may be as familiar with “Macbeth” as I am, but I felt myself reciting in memory instead of paying sharp attention to the stage. Trelease’s entrance made me sit up and take notice of Shakespeare and how he is presented.

Fennie and Baxter are fine actors who have each done wonderful work in Villanova productions. It was buoying to learn they were assigned roles as Macbeth and Duncan, but neither conveys the nobility and magnitude of his character. You don’t see royalty or heroism in them. More to the point, you don’t hear it. Lines sound more recited than spoken extemporaneously or composed in reverie. Moments are played instead of lived. Sentiments are mouthed, not felt. I wondered if more rehearsal time was needed or if the vocal demands of the roles were wearing at the actors.

The performances aren’t bad as much as they are uninspired and prosaic. Fennie will gain some intensity in the “is this a dagger?” speech that precedes Duncan’s murder. He’ll also do well responding to Banquo’s ghost in the banquet scene, but early on, he doesn’t establish Macbeth as a mighty soldier and a would-be king. His best moment before he reaches Inverness is the look of thoughtful wonder on his face when he learns he is, as the witches said, the Thane of Cawdor. Fennie lets you see the feverishness in Macbeth’s evil, especially in the scene in which he enlists the miscreants to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, but he doesn’t convey the turmoil Macbeth feels as he tries to secure his base by slaughtering his enemies only to be confronted with them rising in revolution.

Dan Cullen doesn’t seem to be of Macbeth’s stature as Banquo. He comes across more as a scrappy foot soldier, a commoner of merit, than as a noble general and fitting battle partner for Macbeth. Unlike Fennie and Baxter, Cullen has a juvenile appearance to go with his juvenile voice. The women playing men, Cureton and Meisenzahl, come off as more stalwart and brave than the men cited for winning two challenging battles in a single afternoon. Macbeth and Banquo are the leading soldiers of Scotland. Duncan is a king who presides well over battles and has the common touch with his people and nobles. We need to see more of this competence, strength, and maturity in all of these characters.

The lack of real excitement in the early scenes, and the exaggeration of the witches and their rituals, lead to a lukewarm beginning of Villanova’s “Macbeth.” Trelease’s entrance marks a change in the production’s mood and intensity, but it never gains enough steam to be compelling or emotionally gratifying.

This is “Macbeth” of moments, the best of which have been praised above. As a whole, it tells Shakespeare’s story but rarely illuminates it or makes you care for, or even hate, Macbeth. Pity and terror only come to the Villanova stage when Lady Macduff is verbally sparring with a son you know will be killed with his mother in a matter of minutes. You don’t feel anything much for Macbeth, Banquo, or Duncan. They are figures to be compared for their virtues and excesses, Christy makes their individual values clear. The essence of leadership is one of his themes. But they spark nothing visceral. Neither admiration nor revulsion runs deep. We take the characters at face value and follow them unemotionally as they play out but don’t fully animate their roles. We have more fear and loathing of Macbeth when we watch the murders of the Macduffs than we do when Fennie talks of the threat he feels from Banquo and other courtiers or is motivated by his angst and paranoia to make a second visit to the witches.

Just as the witches’ scene looks gimmicky, with the witches climbing poles and making lewd gestures, so does the porter’s scene.

Christy uses three actors to contrapuntally play the porter, the trio either repeating a line or advancing the dialogue in sequence as Shakespeare has the witches do. His move again seems gratuitous and undermining. The porter’s jokes and drink-inspired maunderings become too diffuse when spread among a group. It’s better and more entertaining to have one person do the job. Ironically, John K. Baxter, who plays Duncan, is the strongest in the part of the man who rouses Inverness on the morning Duncan’s slain body is to be found. Baxter goes from playing the doomed king to being the harbinger of his death.

Though impressed with individual scenes and performances, I was never engaged watching this “Macbeth.” I found myself analyzing it more than concentrating on or getting involved with the story at hand. The crucial business of the play, Macbeth’s ascension and turn towards protective violence, doesn’t acquire immediacy or a sense of purpose. We know what everyone wants, and all that Macbeth is reflecting upon as he weighs his position considering Banquo, Macduff, and other doubter/dissidents, but we never feel as much as reluctant cheer when Macbeth triumphs or horror when Macbeth speaks of the atrocities he is willing to commit to keep the Scottish crown on his head. We have more pity for both Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff and more empathy towards the sincere-speaking Malcolm and Macduff. Such feelings are well-placed, but there should be some interest in Macbeth and the outcome of his ordeal when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. A production should lead us to illogically dreading Macbeth’s demise or devoutly wishing for the justice of it. Passion of some kind should be afoot in the fatal showdown between Macbeth and the Cesarean-born Macduff. Christy and fight coordinator John V. Bellomo choreograph an exciting broadsword fight between Fennie and Meisenzahl. It is thrilling to behold, but it’s the choreography that impresses, not the outcome of the duel which, even if you’re seeing your hundredth “Macbeth,” should be first in your mind. (One of my favorite moments in the theater was walking up the aisle from a Broadway “Macbeth” that starred Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson and hearing a youth about age 18, saying to his girlfriend, “Surprise ending, huh? The Macbeth dude dies. I didn’t know whether to laugh at the naivety or revel in the idea someone was encountering “Macbeth” for the first time and getting excited about an unexpected turn of events.)

Unfortunately for the Villanova production, the sterility of its general tone dominates over its most involving scenes and thorough performances. Unlike most shows at Villanova, this one looks like a college production mounted by interested students as an extracurricular activity or drama club exercise. The story of Macbeth gets told but with little feeling or intensity.

Daniel Boylen’s set is sparse and becomes more than a versatile speaking platform only when the witches climb poles or the pyrotechnics of Brutalism emerge. Susan Shaeffer’s costumes are mostly sand-colored rags that might show the miserable position of Scotland but take away from the characters’ nobility.

“Macbeth” runs through Sunday, November 22, at the Vasey Theatre at Villanova, Lancaster and Ithan Roads, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $23 and can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 or by visiting www.villanovatheatre.org.

 

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