Woodward Shakespeare's visceral 'Macbeth' gives a different take on a classic

The Fresno BeeJune 25, 2014 

At left Greg Taber fights with Cawdor Kayla Weber during rehearsal for their performance of "Macbeth" in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival.

MARK CROSSE — FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

It isn't particularly graceful. There's no upper-crust, commune-with-the-classics feel. This isn't the kind of show where you feel like throwing roses on the stage afterward.

But Woodward Shakespeare Festival's brutish and drastically truncated adaptation of "Macbeth" — which dumps much of the politics and history of the famed play, along with the spectacle of "double, double, toil and trouble" — packs quite a visceral punch. It makes me think of a short, ugly fireplug of a boxer: the kind of scrappy underdog who isn't elegant in the ring but manages to deliver some powerful and unexpected blows.

There are amazing moments in this "Macbeth," with some scenes so vivid and visually charged that they have a cinematic quality. One comes late in the show when Macbeth (played with a grim, sometimes overwrought ferocity by Greg Taber, who also adapted and directed) confronts Donalbain (a compelling Broderic Beard), one of the sons of the murdered King Duncan.

The entire encounter is wordless, and in a creepy twist, Macbeth doesn't actually fight. Donalbain works himself into a frenzy, thrusting and parrying at the man who killed his father, but Macbeth shrugs off every blow as if he's been endowed with some sort of supernatural armor. It's like watching some kind of martial arts form in which the practitioner fends off an aggressor through nonviolent means. And yet the confrontation remains exceedingly violent, with Macbeth periodically bursting forth with a wrenching brutality. (Dane Oliver's fight choreography is first-rate.) The scene has an ominously surreal, ballet-style quality to it.

If you're a Shakespeare purist, you might be reaching for your scripts right about now, trying to find the part in the play in which Donalbain fights Macbeth. You won't. Shakespeare packed him off to Ireland, never to be heard from again. But Taber injects him back into his version, making him an integral part of the story as a way to show Macbeth's descent into madness.

Taber takes lots of other liberties with the script — combining some characters and eliminating others, rearranging scenes and cutting lots of text. For example, we learn of the death of Lady Macbeth (played with a brittle, bracing verve by Kate McKnight) before we see the "out, damned spot" scene in a flashback. Taber even chops up his character's famed soliloquy by giving the opening lines in the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech to the Three Witches (Megan DeWitt, Donna Halliburton and Jessica Reedy).

By paring down "Macbeth's" story lines, Taber says he's able to focus on what he considers to be the overriding arc of the play: that good people can be co-opted by extraordinary evil.

The most compelling result of Taber's drastic adaptation — he calls it a "distillation" — is the snapshot that emerges of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. There's no nobility there. They seem base and common, almost trashy, committed to violence but without the strength to be able to capitalize upon and move beyond the consequences of that violence. I think that Taber has a fascinating take on Macbeth, imbuing him with a macho swagger, though at times his performance gets too big and grandiloquent.

In terms of acting, Jay Parks is a standout as Banquo, giving us a meaty, interesting take on the character. (I also really like how the Banquo's Ghost scene is staged — another visual high point in the production.) There are ups and downs in terms of acting throughout the ensemble, and some clunky blocking — I wish the nearly omnipresent Witches could have been more fluidly staged — but overall, the pacing of the show is brisk and accomplished.

I've seen "Macbeth" before, quite a few times, so perhaps I'm more disposed to tinkering. The last production I saw, last year on Broadway, featured Alan Cumming as a patient in an insane asylum who basically acted out the entire show by himself, playing all the characters. So this Woodward Shakespeare production to me simply carries that avant-garde tradition forward.

The question remains: How much can you chop up "Macbeth" and still have it be "Macbeth"? Nearly all contemporary productions of Shakespeare are cut, of course, many of them drastically so. But how many liberties can a director take? I think it's safe to say that Taber has skirted close to that line, if not actually crossed it. More power to him.

THEATER REVIEW

"Macbeth," 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 12 (no show on July 4) at Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage in Woodward Park. Free, but $10 reserved seats available; park's car-entrance fee applies. www.woodwardshakespeare.org, (559) 927-3485.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com or @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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