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A CurtainUp Review

By Simon Saltzman

Twas a rough night. ---Macbeth
Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins (Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a high-mind sensitive and noble man is seduced by his unscrupulously ambitious wife into committing, for the sake of his career, some rather heinous acts. In the spare but stunning production, directed by Bonnie J. Monte, at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, there is ample evidence that the triple crone curse has been averted and that Macbeth’s "black and deep desires" will be earnestly enjoyed by all who attend "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow."

The dense fog that first reveals the "the weird sisters," the backdrop of black shadow-revealing curtains that dominate designer Michael Schweikardt’s stark no frills setting and Brenda Gray’s ominously dark lighting all appear to be in keeping with the prevailing mood of imminent treachery and subterfuge that is as dominant as Monte’s precisely executed staging. But there is nothing in the haunting atmospherics that prepare us for the dazzling electrical fireworks that light up the stage when Macbeth and his Lady are upon it.

There is little doubt that Robert Cuccioli (Macbeth) and Laila Robins (Lady Macbeth) are a couple in real life and it gives their intimacies a decided boost. Consider the moments, as when Lady Macbeth leaps into Macbeth’s open arms, her legs straddling his waist as he gives her an affectionate slap on the derriere, or when he returns in kind a passionately offered mouth. These are clearly characters marked by their consuming need and dependence for each other, at least, while things are going their way.

But even as their best if ill-laid plans begin to go awry in long ago Scotland, there remain for us to relish the psychologically entwined aspects of their disintegrating relationship. Considering all the formidable actors who have tackled these complex and indeed, very popular roles, including (in recent times) Christopher Plummer with Kate Reid and also Glenda Jackson, Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins and Diana Rigg (oh, the list goes on and on), I am eager to nominate Cuccioli and Robins to the list of the distinguished.

The Tragedy of Macbeth has perplexed innumerable directors and actors for over 375 years. To put it concisely, it is not an easy play to perform. Scholars have acknowledge that the numerous additions and deletions by other hands have resulted in some awkward transitions in both character and scene development. Many of the world’s finest actors have been unable to co-exist on stage with the dual responsibility of projecting a character who is noble, kind and sensitive and yet ambitious to a fault He succumbs not only to his wife’s all-consuming desire for power but also to the mistress of the witches' prognostications, who (in this instance) bears a remarkable likeness to Lady M. Murder after murder is justified superficially, but Macbeth’s methodic deterioration of his mind and spirit must be the foremost goal of the actor or we lose all compassion for this pitiable but heroic figure.

Cuccioli, who is probably best known for his Jekyll and Hyde portrayal on Broadway and is celebrating his fifth season with the NJ Shakespeare Theater, is considerably more inspired by his Lady M. than he was by Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra a few seasons ago. He reveals Macbeth’s steady mental deterioration as a man unwittingly corrupted by the woman he loves and trusts. I wouldn’t call his Macbeth the last word on Macbeth, but his performance reaches well into a vivid if still essentially decomposing Macbeth. Except for the night porter’s (amusingly played by Eric Hoffman) "knock, knock" scene, Cuccioli gets the play's sole laugh uttering, "Twas a rough night." Twas indeed. Because all hinges on one actor’s ability to bring dimension to so many qualities both noble and ignoble, I can see the almost tortuous demands that are made upon the actor who tackles it. Hamlet must seem like a breeze in comparison.

Lady Macbeth is the play’s real motivating force and the one who triggers Macbeth’s crimes by manipulating his subconscious desire for the throne. In this instance, we also have the luminous Robins as the dangerously ambitious woman whose conscience seems to war against her resolutions for a total of about 30 seconds. Robins, who has numerous Broadway credits including last season’s acclaimed Frozen, has been active on the NJ Shakespeare Theater stage for eight seasons. She is nothing less than a keg of unstable dynamite. It is thrilling to see how, dressed in costumer Frank Champa’s sensual and cleavage revealing gowns, with her long blonde hair at liberty, she uses her sex and Macbeth’s strength to fulfill her own ends. In the famed sleep-walking scene, Robins exposes Lady M.’s guilty conscience with fiery resoluteness that is both chilling and heartbreaking.

Heavily metaphysical in nature, almost all the characters reflect aspects of Macbeth’s own persona. It is striking how Monte uses the witches. Cloaked in black hooded robes, they hover and spy on the action even as they invade Macbeth’s dreams. The famed "double toil and trouble" pot boiler speech is given added psychological power by having the witches give it while practicing their concerted witchery over Macbeth’s sleeping body. And equally provocative, the witches are all young and weird enough, far from being hags.

As much as Michael Stewart Allen captures Banquo’s high-mindedness whilst alive, he is even better when he returns as a bloody and vengeful ghost to scare the daylights out of Macbeth. Gregory Derelian, as that model of integrity McDuff and Raphael Nash Thompson, as the gracious Duncan, are part of an excellent ensemble within another powerful play from the Bard for our times.

As it is almost impossible not to interpret Shakespeare in the light of our current state of affairs, here are a few lines from director Monte’s program notes: "Macbeth’s journey begins with self-promotion, moves to self-defense and quickly spirals into addiction. He becomes addicted to violence as a solution, immune to fear, seduced by power, monstrous in his arrogance and an expert in twisting truth -- not only for others but for himself as well." Monte reminds us that the time is always right to say, and as Macbeth says in his final words in the play, "Hold, enough."

Editor's Note: Links to other Macbeth productions reviewed at CurtainUp, see our Shakespeare Page.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte
Cast: (in order of appearance) Robert Cuccioli, Gregory Derelian, Melissa T. Miller, Corey Tazmania, Caralyn Kozlowski, Raphael Nash Thompson, Jimonn Cole, Michael Rossmy, Doug West, Brian Schilb, Seth D. Rabinowitz, Roderick Lapid, Dennis Ferenchick, Steven Jayson, Alexander Haynes, Michael Stewart Allen, Laila Robins, Aaron Shipp, Eric Hoffmann, Austin Colaluca, Leon Addison Brown, Duncan Hazard, Chloe Colaluca.
Set Design: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Designer: Frank Champa
Lighting Designer: Brenda Gray
Sound Designer: Richard M. Dionne
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet Production Stage Manager: Josiane M. Lemieux
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Ave. at Lancaster Rd. in Madison (on the campus of Drew University).
From10/19/04 to 11/19/04; opening 10/23/04
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on opening night performance
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