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A CurtainUp Review

Out, damned spot! .— Lady Macbeth
John Douglas Thompson
John Douglas Thompson
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Under the shrewd direction of Arin Arbus and with John Douglas Thompson in the titular role, Shakespeare's visionary play about ambition gets a new psychological spin. In the Theater for a New Audience's new production of Macbeth the myth hasn't changed at all. But in having Thompson play the tragic protagonist, the dramatic equation of the work has shifted significantly.

No one need debate Thompson's natural endowments: his powerful physique, his sonorous voice, his imposing stage presence. But there's something else that he adds to his performance here that goes far beyond his physical gifts. That is, he shows a deep familiarity with the play. Thompson's Macbeth is not a blood, guts and glory guy. He is more like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, seeking forbidden knowledge and demanding answers to the mysteries of the future.

As Lady Macbeth, the very attractive Annika Boras goes the distance as well. She embodies the passionate lover and close collaborator in Duncan's murder in early scenes; and she appropriately sinks into her sleep-walking episode later on. Indeed, when Boras' Lady Macbeth gets off the stage in Act 3, Scene 4, the play becomes duller. True, she returns briefly in a state of madness at the beginning of Act 5, but it's only the shadow of the Queen.

One of the great strengths of this production is the good chemistry between Thompson and Boras as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The electricity between this power couple is palpable, and one never doubts that they are profoundly in love. The renowned critic Harold Bloom pointed out that the surpassing irony of the tragedy lies in their close-knit relationship. He aptly summed up the Macbeths as "the happiest married couple in all of Shakespeare's work.";

From the getgo, Arbus has put her signature on the production. Instead of engulfing you with special effects to create a phatasmagorical world, she subtly leads you into Macbeth's heart of darkness. She allows you to identify, if not with Macbeth himself, with his imagination. And this is, after all, a tragedy of the imagination which Arbus illuminates it at every turn. Thus, when you watch Macbeth in his famous "dagger" speech, or at the banquet scene where the ghost of Banquo materializes, you never see any spectacle of a steely weapon or a spooky ghost. In short, Arbus suggests that he is hallucinating, and that the real drama is in his mind.

There's other things to admire: Julian Crouch's set is cleanly designed, with minimal props to serve the unfolding action. Anita Yavich's period costumes are not the least bit fussy, and the chic black gown for Lady Macbeth in her opening scene is stunning. Marcus Doshi's lighting is highly effective, especially in the second witch scene with Macbeth. As the Weird Sisters reveal the past and future to Macbeth here, sudden shafts of light blaze up from the stage's floorboards. It creates a breath-taking moment, in which one can almost sense the active evil coursing through Macbeth's psyche.

The most impressive acting in this version of the Scottish Play is by Thompson and Boras . No surprise here. The rest of the ensemble is capable, including the bearded male actors (Tommy Schrider, Andrew Zimmerman, Saxon Palmer) as the three Witches.

There have been bolder presentations of Macbeth in recent years, most notably the 2008 Broadway production led by Patrick Stewart. (Who can forget its bleak otherworldly feel?) But Arbus succeeds here with elegant staging and a solid American cast with Shakespearean chops. And that's something to celebrate.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Directed by Arin Arbus
Cast: Justin Blanchard (Malcolm), Annika Boras (Lady Macbeth), Denis Butkus (Lennox), Peter Jay Fernandez (Duncan/Old Man/Doctor), Ian Holcomb (Donalbain/Messenger), Albert Jones (Macduff), John Christopher Jones (Porter/Servant), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Ross), Saxon Palmer (Third Witch/Seyton), Marquis Rodriguez (Fleance/Young Macduff/Young Siward), Roslyn Ruff (Lady Macduff/Gentlewoman), Christian Rummel (Sergeant/Doctor/Menteith), Tommy Schrider (First Witch/First Murderer), John Douglas Thompson (Macbeth), Graham Winton (Banquo/Siward) and Andrew Zimmerman (Second Witch).
Sets and masks: Julian Crouch
Costumes: Anita Yavich
Lighting: Marcus Doshi
Music and sound: Sarah Pickett
Vocal coach: Andrew Wade
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Fight director: B. H. Barry
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission Theater for a New Audience att the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street; (646) 223-3010,
From 3/12/11; opening 3/25/11; closing 4/21/11. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan March 29, 2001
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