Macbethby William Shakespeare. Directed by John Hadden.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...almost too weak for brave Macbeth."
Betsy Holt and Gino Costabile; photo: John Sutton
Things are not quite what they seem. The Scottish play is a tragedy from lights up to final bows and is usually presented as such. At Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York director John Hadden has brought the play to life in a new way, one that provides all the sexual energy and romantic impulse that is ordinarily lacking. Through his casting of the two principal roles, Macbeth and his lady, and with a visual sense that brings the play to a stunningly present sensibility, Hadden has taken care of his vision and his audience at the same time. No one can go away from this production without understanding every motive and every action.
The Thane of Glamis and Cawdor and his bride lust for one another with greater verve than they ache for power. Gino Costabile and Betsy Holt cannot keep their hands off each other and when they speak of power they both are turned on sexually. They resemble people we have seen on our television screens, those politicians who push the national agenda, those moguls who build empires that teeter on the brink of disaster. This couple is just as vibrant and volatile as Imelda Marcos or Leona Helmsley, Paul Ryan or Henry Kissinger.
Costabile is a slow starter. His first few scenes show a lackluster side of the future king of Scotland, a scoffer and a disbeliever. He has no cause to believe in, least of all himself. But once he shares his story with his wife his emotional surge brings with it a vitality that grows to epic proportion in the second half of the play. Here sensitivity attacks his brain and his heart and his nerves. As Costabile starts the "tomorrow and tomorrow. . ." speech the emotional side of Macbeth pops through and his vision of personal tragedy touches the audience with a clarity and power not exhibited much before. His change is gradual and it is wonderful to behold.
Holt is at her finest in the sleepwalking scene, played with a very present gentlewoman and doctor who feed physically off of her startling energy. In her earlier scenes the actress was a bit overwhelmed, it seemed, by the dialogue, but her physical rapport with Costabile makes up for some of that as she grinds her way into his mind. The banquet scene was weak, but the chance to inspire her husband to dire deeds was strong. This was an uneven performance but still one that played properly into the director’s vision of the couple.
Fine actors played the balance of the cast. A company of eight actors undertook twenty-eight characters. Led by Christine Decker, whose stretch included King Duncan and the witch Hecate, along with the doctor, a child and an old woman, this company supplied ample variety and strength to every single character. Decker was quite adept at character change, her Duncan elderly, weak and weary yet full of hidden strengths and impulses. Her Hecate was physically, though not emotionally, removed from her sister witches. Her two scenes as the doctor played to a finely serious study of a man unable to aid a patient whose needs were beyond his capabilities.
Robert Francis Forgett made Malcolm memorable and the murderer into a gigantic picture of emotional control. Reilly Hadden created two very different people. As Banquo he was a man without much personality and as Macduff he was very much purposed and capable.
Scott Renzoni, a favorite from Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts, turned Ross into much more of a player than I can ever recall from other productions, an example of the tweaking of the Shakespeare original by the director here. His two-faced approach to life, in Renzoni’s hands, approached an Iago (from Othello) in the oddness of his actions and reactions to the people he betrayed. As the servant of King Macbeth his curious style of unease played to that quality of comedy people resort to in uncomfortable situations.
As the comic relief in this play Doug Ryan transported the odd role of the Porter into a comedy routine that played perfectly to the moment - an early counterpoint to the tragedy that follows. In one of his other roles, Young Macduff, he is a treasure whose work makes you instantly and completely suspend disbelief.
The three witches are played here by Catherine Seeley, Myka Plunkett and Colleen Lovett and together they are the finest trio of weird sisters in my memory. These are peasant women, not creatures from phony Hollywood film. They make predictions based on the logic of a situation and they use dark magic to create illusions that stupefy even Macbeth. These are 1940's, radio listening, movie-going, war-weary widows who can observe and take care of situations not of their own making. Individually each actress shines in other roles here as well.
Witch One, Seeley, inhabits the role of Lady Macduff and her death is quite moving. Witch Two, Plunkett, plays the first murderer with chilling accuracy and the gentlewoman with a tone that makes her emotional palate a bit pale and restrained. She makes a twenty-second costume change between these two with an entrance quite a long way from her point of exit. Witch Three, Lovett, plays Seyton, a court functionary, with style and grace and her obvious scorn for this job is a pleasantly unexpected piece of interpretation.
In creating this production which smacks in some ways of Brechtian confrontational theater, John Hadden has created a timeless seamless evening of theater through which Shakespeare becomes almost a contemporary author, a Maxwell Anderson theater poet for whom language defines character and action is a limited must-have. He has moved moments, altered characters, changed motivations and traditional movements. He ends up leaving his audience with a sense of the play’s other message, that these people are not of one particular time, but rather exist in all times and will be seen again in the future.
Erin Ouellette’s costumes add to that picture and so does the flexible set, especially through the choreographed set changes provided by Colleen Lovett. Even in the dark or half dark transitions they are a joy to watch and help speed the show along. Similarly Doug Ryan and John Rosmus have created a sound curtain that moves mountains and Birnam Wood.
The combination of play, director’s vision, and an acting company that makes it all seem so natural and easy results in an evening of theater that is absolutely not to be missed. Absolutely not to be missed (it has to be said twice).
Macbeth plays at Hubbard Hall, located at 25 Main Street, Cambridge, NY through March 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-677-2495 or go on line at www.hubbardhall.org.
Catherine Seeley, Colleen Lovett, Myka Plunkett; photo: John Sutton