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A CurtainUp Review

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,/ And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!"
Malcolm Gets, John Glover, and Byron Jennings Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Anne-Marie Duff and Ethan Hawke (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
It's perhaps unfortunate that Jack O'Brien decided to stage his Macbeth in a season that features one of the British Theater's greatest Shakespeareans to our shores. His swollen version of the Scottish play, with Ethan Hawke miscast as the visionary Thane, and the witches gaining pride of place on stage, makes for a strange theatrical feast.

Okay, full disclosure. I went to the first preview with a friend. That first blush left me thinking that Hawke had miles to go before he might fully realize the protagonist. A terrific actor for many leading roles, he appeared at sea with this classic character. In sharp contrast, the Witches and Hecate had no problem making a statement as they brewed their metaphysical magic to entrap Macbeth. Leaving the theater that October evening, I hoping that Hawke would ripen into Bellona's Bridegroom as the run continued, and rebalance the acting to its proper theatrical equation. Didn't, ast they say, happen!

Having now returned to the Vivian Beaumont after the official opening, I'm sorry to report that Hawke is pretty much in the same place with his Macbeth and that the Witches and Hecate still weigh in with a hefty diabolical presence. That's not to say that there aren't redeeming elements in this production. It's just that O'Brien, the reigning helmer of Shakespeare's works in New York and beyond (Remember his amazing Henry IV at Lincoln Center?), has nodded with his latest outing. As grand as his production is, his main player mostly comes across as a jaundiced hell-hound.

So to go, or not to go to this Macbeth? That is the question in this Shakespeare-sated season. It really depends on whether you feel compelled to see every production of a major Shakespeare play and whether you can affor to invest the money. And the time! Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy at 2,477 lines but O'Brien has teased it out here with thunder, lightning, and langueurs.

There is a "breathing-space" in the dark staging when the drunken Porter (the superb John Glover) enters. Not only does this start the play's counter-action, but it provides the lightest moments of the show. Remember all the knocking in the Porter's low-brow soliloquy that suggests hell gates and Beelzebub? Well, here, the lights suddenly go on and it morphs into those old "knock-knock" jokes and more. The audience at the performance I attended playfully joined in, and if you have any youngsters in tow, this is the scene that no doubt will linger in their imaginations. Macbeth purists may find it a bit jarring.

There's plenty of mood and atmosphere stirred up on Scott Pask's cavernous set. It's modeled on a Mandala, with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't center pop-up prop that serves as a table, bed, or you-name-it. Japhy Weidman's murky lighting and Catherine Zuber's regal-looking costumes accentuate the set and provide period. Add Mark Bennett's original music and sound-and you have rich tableaus of twilight. Their combined artistry often overshadows the acting (you can take that literally and figuratively), it certainly rams home that the Macbeths' pathological ambition and treachery unfolds beneath a nightmare-ish landscape. It's no accident that Shakespeare penned the majority of his scenes in darkness or twilight.

To return to the acting, there's no need to use a brickbat on Hawke. But he does fail to animate Macbeth's language with the right blending of psychological complexity and painful guilt. He doesn't allow you to "see" into Macbeth's personality and his journey from human being to pure villain. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's great creations, but you get only a sketch of the Thane as Hawke interprets him.

As Lady Macbeth the British actress Anne-Marie Duff fares much better. She has true Shakespearean chops and moves about the stage with enough confidence for both herself and her stage husband. She's a latter-day Medea here, quite capable of "dashing out the brains" of her babe if it helps to achieve her ambitious plan to be queen.

There are also some impressive turns in the ensemble. Not to disappoint is Richard Easton as Duncan and Brian d'Arcy James as Banquo. Though d'Arcy James has more experience as a musical theater performer, he's proved himself able to hold his own without singing, and does so here. And of course there are the scene stealing Witches— Malcom Gets, John Glover, and Byron Jennings. They as well as Francesca Faridany's Hecate are spot on supernatural beings.

So, yes, Mr. O'Brien does score some pluses in his theatrical column with this production. Perhaps the best way to sum up this Macbeth is to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare himself: "mingled yarn, good and ill together"

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jack O’Brien
Cast: Bianca Amato (Lady Macduff), John Patrick Doherty (Cathness), Anne-Marie Duff (Lady Macbeth), Austin Durant (Murderer 2/Siward), Richard Easton (Duncan), Francesca Faridany (Hecate), Stephanie Fieger (Harpier), Malcolm Gets (Witch/Angus), John Glover (Witch/a Porter/Murderer 3), Ethan Hawke (Macbeth), Ben Horner (Murderer 1), Ruy Iskandar (Donalbain), Brian d’Arcy James (Banquo), Byron Jennings (Witch /Bloody Sergeant/A Lord), Paul Kite (Paddock), Aaron Krohn (Rosse), Jeremiah Maestas (Seyton), Christopher McHale (an Old Man/Messenger/an English Doctor), Jonny Orsini (Malcolm), Sam Poon (Macduff Boy), Triney Sandoval (Menteth), Nathan Stark (Fleance), Daniel Sunjata (Macduff), Patrick Vaill (Graymalkin), Tyler Lansing Weaks (Young Siward), Derek Wilson (Lennox).
Sets by Scott Pask
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Japhy Weideman
Music and sound by Mark Bennett
Projections by Jeff Sugg

Hair and wig design by David Brian Brown
Makeup by Angelina Avallone
Fight director, Steve Rankin
Stage manager, Tripp Phillips
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with 1 intermission
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes.
From 10/24/13; opening 11/21/13; closing 1/12/14.
Tuesday - Saturday @8pm Wednesday and Saturday @2pm, Sunday @3pm. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at 11/24/13 press performance
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