Theater Review: MACBETH (Oregon Shakespeare)

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by Tony Frankel on June 12, 2019

in Theater-Regional


Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or The Tragedy of Macbeth, is typically dated to the years immediately following the coronation of James I as King of England in 1603. James, who was also King of Scotland, believed himself to be descended from Banquo, the noble friend of Macbeth. While the play is not considered one of Shakespeare’s histories, it is loosely based on historical events.

While Shakespeare could have used the central idea of the witches’ prophecy as a vehicle for exploring the perennial philosophical problem of free will vs determinism, he instead chooses to focus on his titular character’s treachery and madness. This has the effect of making Macbeth far darker than Hamlet and King Lear, despite the shared theme of madness. With so many characters dying left and right, it could perhaps be compared to the Bard’s Titus Andronicus, whose titular character also oversees plenty of murder and bloodlust. At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, director José Luis Valenzuela doesn’t shy away from the play’s darker moments; in fact, a particularly gruesome scene of butchered innocents makes the tale of treachery, murder, and madness much more powerful and moving. But this is difficult material. Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is so uneven that most scenes without the title character is of dubious interest.

The play is about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, but Valenzuela is also interested in the power of suggestion. Here, the three weird sisters — or witches — that inform Macbeth of his future as Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland are seen throughout the play, sometimes inhabiting smaller roles, which I translated as this: the witches’ declaration was the spur that Macbeth needed to be receptive to a further — and deadly — suggestion by his wife. Since Banquo also sees the witches near the top of the play, we know it’s not all in Macbeth’s head, but the seed has been planted. And this is why the “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble” scene — which has Macbeth bathing naked while the witches invade his mind — is a coup de théâtre. There is yet another stage picture involving Lady Macbeth that is as good as art gets; tableaux vivants are one of Valenzuela’s strong suits.

Any staging of the Scottish tragedy sinks or soars with the Macbeths: despite its tragic sprawl and bloody spectacle, the play belongs entirely to the title tyrant and his instantly corruptible hellmate. Danforth Comins bared a lot on opening night, apparently the last chilly evening of the season, and he shines as Macbeth, offering inner torment and Hamlet-like looniness; he pickles this monster in savage guilt, spitting out self-disgust in “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” an elegy for evil. While Amy Kim Waschke had some powerful moments as Lady Macbeth, I didn’t get the hold over her husband. When we first meet her, she’s bereaving over the coffin of her dead child, a bit of backstory that, in this case, helps to center her righteous fury. Waschke is a devilish crusader cutting down anything in her path. She brings a psychological complexity and a tragic nuance to the role — her “out, damn spot” breakdown is as heart-wrenching as it is deeply creepy now that Valenzuela put her in a film noir asylum. The relationship between the two is just not as strong as it could have been.

Pablo Santiago’s lighting helped enormously, given that Christopher Acebo’s set of rolling steel towers with steel one-dimensional branches (that were oddly not used for Birnam Wood) was swallowed up by the Allen Theatre; since the decision was made to have outdoor shows moved to the 400-seat theater at a local high school during fire season, sets had to be compromised. Also, the idea to contemporize falls flat. Items such as torn jeans, a Tyrolean fedora, tights, kilts, and a Star Trek-like cocktail dress co-mingle (Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko, costumes), and all I kept thinking was, “Where are we?” I guess it doesn’t much matter when theatrical magic is at hand.

photos by Jenny Graham

Allen Elizabethan Theatre
Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR
ends on October 11, 2019
for tickets, call 800.219.8161 or visit OSF

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lynnette Arsenault September 16, 2019 at 3:07 pm

Let me first say that I am not a Shakespeare scholar nor have I read all of the plays, but I will say I was not a fan of the portrayal of Macbeth in this. I felt the title character was miscast and not strong enough to carry the part. However, that may have been made more evident as the play itself is a bit choppy and hard to follow. It is always interesting to see how Ashland’s directors cast, clothe and set the scenery. I liked the other characters and casting, just not the title character. He lacked strength and did nothing to further the character. This was a bust as far as I was concerned, my friends disagree with my assessment.


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