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A CurtainUp Review

Out, out, brief candle!— Macbeth
Kenneth Branagh
Fresh recipe for staging Macbeth? Just import the legendary British actor Kenneth Branagh to play the titular lead, seek out an urban castle like the Park Avenue Armory to mount it in, add a top-notch director — or two —-to give it stage legs, and invite theater goers who enjoy inventive Shakespeare in a non-traditional setting.

If that sounds like it would happen only once in a blue moon, well that blue moon is currently casting its light on the Park Avenue Armory, but only through June 22nd. Branagh slips into the skin of Macbeth, and co-directs this classic with the celebrated American director Rob Ashford. These two artists, and their creative team, have taken over the Armory's Drill Hall and transformed it into a phantasmagoric world.

This production originated at the Manchester International Festival in 2013, where it was mounted in a deconsecrated church. It soon became the "hot ticket" of the festival. Branagh's incredibly vibrant performance as Macbeth marks his return to the stage after more than a decade's absence.

Still, it was more than Branagh's celebrity that drew people to the theatrical event. His and Ashford's striking interpretation incorporated church architecture and religious imagery to underscore the central themes of this great morality play. To counterbalance its Christian textures and add dramatic tension, they added Standing Stones to evoke Stonehenge and Celtic culture at the opposite side of the stage. Spectators sat in two banks of seats, facing opposite each other, along the main stage.

Returning to the present Armory iteration, this Macbeth tops any other live stage performance of the play that I have witnessed to date. Not a single scene is humdrum or stuffy. Branagh and Ashford fully realize that the play's martial spirit fuses sublimely with the Armory's history and architectural contours.

The original purpose of this landmark building that was built by New York State's Seventh Regiment of the National Guard as "a military facility and social club." What could dovetail better with its past than to stage the Scottish play in its historical shadows? After all, wasn't Macbeth first lauded by Duncan as a hero-general? And though he got stripped of his hero status when he turned serial killer, his soldier identity strangely stuck fast to him right through play's end.

If you're lucky enough to have a ticket, go early for your performance! This fully-immersive theatrical experience begins as soon as you pass through the Armory's huge main door. For starters, you are greeted by Armory guides who direct you through the lobby and give you a bracelet designating the name of a Scottish "clan" into which you are now "adopted." That means you can mingle and enjoy a drink (complimentary white wine or water is offered at tables abutting your clan's room) with the rest of your clan members before the curtain call. (By the way, the real historical clans were in constant friction with each other and war could spark up between them in a nanosecond.)

It's great to chat with fellow clan members and thumb through the program that bears the emblem of your "adopted" clan until your guide reappears and directs you toward the huge 55, 000 square foot Drill Hall. Upon entering you see what looks like a latter-day "blasted heath" which calls to mind the spooky opening witches' scene. The walk to your seat is an eerie experience that is sure to raise goosebumps on the back of your neck but the trek through the wasteland is well worth it.

The main stage design by Christopher Oram impressively replicates the original Manchester mounting on a more epic scale. It is short on decorative touches but tall in its imaginative reach. There is a long rectangular performing space with an altar and chancel at one end and Standing Stones at the other. Its simplicity is powerful, as are the small votive candles that flicker on the improvised altar.

Continue to expect the unexpected and be prepared to sit on a backless bench. The opening scene still has the Three Witches materialize and speak in dark ambiguous riddles. But unlike more traditional mountings, you see Macbeth, Banquo, and others in a full-blown battle —and mud bath —on stage.

This is clearly Branagh's star turn from the moment he appears. His Thane truly registers the rise and fall of a hero from man of conscience to human butcher. There's no doubt that he has that je-ne-sais-quoi quality of a great actor. More than one critic has compared him to Laurence Olivier, and though I never saw Olivier on the stage, I daresay that Branagh is in the running for his mantle.

These witches float
Alex Kingsto is a powerhouse of an actress and well-cast as the Queen who goads her husband to damnation. The Three Witches (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan) suitably look and act their parts. Not only do they uncannily hover between earth and air on stage (the amazing Paul Kieve is Illusion Consultant), but they run wildly around the Standing Stones at times like the Maenads of The Bacchae.

Wrapping one's mind completely around this Macbeth is next-to-impossible. But there are some stunning standout dramatic moments. There's Macbeth's famous dagger-of-the-mind speech that is done with a new hallucinatory twist. It begins with Macbeth speaking his familiar lines as he gazes at a cross above the altar. Then in will-o the wisp fashion, the religious cross vanishes from the altar and seamlessy morphs into a suspended dagger in midair at center stage. It is Kieve's illusion know-how that is creating this rough magic. But it works like a charm.

Another memorable scene is the Porter's, performed by Tom Godwin with a knowing wink. It offers a "breather" for an audience watching one grim murder after another take place before their eyes. And in this two hour intermissionless production the Porter scene provides some good old-fashioned comic relief.

Unfortunately, this all-too-brief run is sold out. However, a limited number of rush tickets are available on the same day of performance.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Macbeth), Alex Kingston (Lady Macbeth), Richard Coyle (Macduff), Scarlett Strallen (Lady Macduff), John Shrapnel (Duncan/Seyton/Old Man), Alexander Vlahos (Malcolm), Elliot Balchin (Donalbain), Jimmy Yuill (Banquo), Patrick Neil Doyle (Fleance), Edward Harrison (Lennox), Norman Bowman (Ross), Andy Apollo (Menteith), Dominic Thorburn (Angus), Nari Blair-Mangat (Caithness), David Annen (Siward), Harry Lister Smith (Young Siward), Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan (the Weird Sisters), Dylan Clark Marshall (Macduff's Son), Katie West (Gentlewoman), Benny Young (Scottish Doctor), Tom Godwin (Porter), Stuart Neal (Murderer/Servant), Tom Godwin and Jordan Dean (Murderers), Cody Green (Macduff's Messenger), Zachary Spicer (Robertson), and Kate Tydman (Lady in Waiting). sets and costumes by Christopher Oram;; lighting by Neil Austin; production manager, Jim Leaver
Sets and costumes: Christopher Oram
Music: Patrick Doyle
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Fight director: Terry King
Hair and makeup: Carol Hemming
Wigs: Liz Armstrong
Production Manager: Jim Leaver
Running Time: 2 hours without an intermission
The Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall, 643 Park Avenue From 5/31/14; opening 6/07/14; closing 6/22/14
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
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