Odd choices mar Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s atmospheric ‘Macbeth’
Handsome costumes, electrifying sound and light effects, and Shakespeare’s finest language all meet in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a true theatrical witch’s brew. When the hurly burly’s done, casting innovations result in many interesting and challenging moments in this final play of the SCS season.
After suffering the untimely cancellation of its preview night run-through—due, ironically, to a thunderstorm—the production opened in the Festival Glen with its own salvo of spectacular lightning and thunder effects. The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, Macbeth took only three hours to unfold its tale of vaulting ambition and overpowering guilt. Rife with matchless dialogue, the play also comes with its own historic context—and its own requisite suspensions of everyday reality.
Perhaps 21st century audiences can no longer entertain notions of enchantment involving mysterious and magical figures on misty moors, nor can they easily suspend disbelief about prophetic visions. At least the opening night audience of this production seemed unable to fall under the spell Macbeth should produce, and, once again—this is becoming a destructive theme with live audiences—nervous and/or simply inappropriate laughter all but destroyed any mood that might have powered the last acts of the play. Instead, thanks to the loud tittering and rattling of bags, bottles, and plastic containers, the play could do little but dwindle its dusty way to conclusion.
Among the highlights was opening night’s eerie prophecy scene, in which the three witches first confront Macbeth and Banquo, changing their fortunes forever. Heightened by electronic sound manipulation, ritualistic movement, and atmospheric effects, the scene was genuinely chilling. Pacing of scene transitions throughout the production was smooth and swift. Kudos to B. Modern for outfitting the cast in such vibrant period costumes—leather and kilts are always a treat.
To lighting designer Kurt Landisman goes credit for flooding the forest with terrifying effects and brooding atmosphere. Sound designer Rodolfo Ortega’s heroic flourishes and anthemic transitions did much to herald the big changes and political consequences afoot for Scotland. The vocal transformations of witches speech were, yes, bewitching.
Since Macbeth is a dark drama of murderers coming unglued, surely the play requires a growing sense of impending doom. I would have liked more fire, more urgency in the wordplay. The dramatic high point came as Macduff (a powerhouse Toby Onwumere) discovers the murders of his family and vows revenge upon Macbeth. It’s strange that Macbeth himself (Steve Pickering, given lines that any actor would kill for) seemed only mildly distressed by the death of his wife (played with great poise by Melinda Parrett). Perhaps the decision to have her “corpse” lying heavily across his lap compromised his “sound and fury” speech.
Bold casting decisions gave us the earnest young Sierra Jolene as Malcolm, the future monarch of Scotland. And the luckless Banquo was played by the leather-clad Greta Wohlrabe, hell-bent on payback. Such casting might add new texture and perspective to the drama for some viewers. Or perhaps a battle lost, not won. In the crucial banquet scene Banquo appeared not as a terrifying undead spectre, mocking the fevered conscience of Macbeth, but as a swaggering warrior, leaping on top of the dining table to confront the illicit king.
One perplexing result of casting came when the play opened not with the ethereal mischief of the weird sisters asking when they three will meet again, but with background discussion of how the Thane of Cawdor has vanquished a pack of Norwegians. This was partly due to casting a single actor as both Ross and the First Weird Sister. In the interests of costuming this actor for one of those roles, the other role was sacrificed. Hence we are denied the visual pleasure of the three witches appearing together in their final scene. Weird indeed.
Nothing is ever as immersive as live theater, and for the next few weeks the Scottish play fills the enchanted redwood glen. With the benefit of more performances, this handsome production of Macbeth should grow tighter and more assured in the coming weeks.
‘Macbeth’ runs through Aug. 30 in the Festival Glen at UCSC. Go to santacruzshakespeare.org for more details. BREW MASTERS Patty Gallagher, Mary Cavett, and Suzanne Sturn with Steve Pickering in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’ PHOTO: R.R. JONES