Thursday, September 26, 2013

Theater Review: Macbeth -- Hartford Stage

Matthew Rauch. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Look into The Eyes of Evil
By Lauren Yarger
"Sleep no more" might be the cry of a the anguished soul of a king tormented by guilt and murderous ambition, but it also might be the fate of audience members taking in Hartford Stage's dark production of Macbeth.

Director Darko Tresnjak focuses on the darkness of evil and the psychological depths of the pit it offers to anyone choosing to follow it. It's dark -- literally. Lighting by Matthew Richards keeps everything in night setting, spotlighting only elements that need to be brought into focus to accent the horror unfolding.

There's fog and darkness shrouding the three witches (Kate MacCluggage, Mahira Kakkar and Kaliswa Brewster. hiding their hideous forms laden with horribly distended breasts, but white light highlights the circles and etchings they make (this is downright creepy) and the bubbling cauldron they brew. Emphasis for this production is on the graphic, visual elements, and Richards make sure we see all of the amazingly disgusting ingredients that slither into the pot (which really isn't a pot, but a hole in the ground leading to other horrible depths that we can only imagine (Director Tresnjak also designs the sets).

That scenic design becomes part of the storytelling, with nifty changing panels cut into a black backdrop to create among other things, the encroaching Birnam Wood. Raw graphic visuals drive the scenes where Macduff's wife and children are slain and the final closing shot on Macbeth, in full glory as he reaps the rewards of his treachery. I don't want to give away too many details, but I will say that whether or not you are a fan of Shakespeare, or of this story -- which already is one of the bard's darkest tragedies any way -- you won't forget this production. It's quite possible it will give you nightmares and cause you to "sleep no more." Jane Shaw's sound designs, complete with unsettling noises, adds to the atmosphere.

Heading the cast are Matthew Rauch as Macbeth, a Scottish General who kills King Duncan  (David Manis) and Kate Forbes as Lady Macbeth, his conniving, greedy wife whose ambition fuels the murders necessary for her husband to take the throne as foretold by the three witches. Rauch seems a little too graceful in the part and moves so lightly that it's hard to imagine his being weighed down by crushing guilt, or physically forcing his wife to do anything (there's a sort of rape scene?)

Forbes is a strong Lady Macbeth, particularly when she is haunted to madness by the deeds she and her husband have done, but a lot of her dialogue gets lost and cannot be heard or understood clearly.

Standing out is Robert Eli as Macduff. He lights up the stage whenever he is on it and is truly moving in the scene where he is told his family has been wiped out. MacCluggage doubles as Lady McDuff in a role that keeps the talented actress too briefly on stage.

Kaliswa Brewster, Kate MacCluggage and Mahira Kakkar. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
What's really nice about this production (as disturbing as it is to watch) is that Tresnjak interprets, rather than reinvents. Too often directors these days thing Shakespeare is a template to be changed and updated at will. After all, it's not like the family or estate is around to complain, and there are no royalties to pay so directors just have at it under the guise of being creative. Hence we get Hamlets fighting in World War II or Macbeths dealing with post traumatic stress disorder in Viet Nam or Romeo showing up in red biker boots on a motorcycle (as is the case in Romeo and Juliet currently playing on Broadway).

Here, instead, we get Macbeth, a general in 11th-Century Scotland, wearing black boots, chain mail and a sword. Everyone is costumed by Suttirat Anne Larlarb (who worked on the opening ceremony for the London Olympics Ceremony and the film "Slumdog Millionaire" among other things) in dark, muted colors appropriate for the somber tones of the production. The fight scenes with the swords and an ax, choreographed by J. David Brimmer, seem staged and aren't believable, however, given the very realistic violence of the rest of the production.

This powerful (and yes, very dark and creepy) rendition of Macbeth runs in repertory with La Dispute through Nov. 10. (Now I understand why Tresnjak chose a rather silly, uncomplicated play to pair with the Shakespeare offering -- the cast probably needs to divest themselves of the dark, psychological oppression that consumes them in Macbeth and enjoy a little light).

Tickets are $25 to $95:  860-527-5151 or visit

Special events connected with this show:
  • Following the matinee on Sunday, Oct. 20, dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson will interview Professor Arthur Kinney of UMass Amherst about Shakespeare's Macbeth from a historical perspective.
  • Williamson and guests will explore the themes of La Dispute and Macbeth  noon Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the Hartford Public Library Atrium next to the new Billings Forge CafĂ©, 500 Main St., Hartford.
  • Join members of the Costume, Scenery and Technical Departments for a catered pre-show dinner, get an up-close look at costumes sketches from each show and discuss the design and production.
    6 pm. Tuesday, Oct. 15. Reservations required. Tickets are $25. Cash bar.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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