Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Macbeth remixed

Nate Gundy as "Banco" in Macbett.  Photo: Nancy lasBarrone.

We may not have seen an actual production of Macbeth in, well, years, but two of the play's derivatives have been on the boards this season - first the Verdi version, from Boston Lyric Opera, and now Ionesco's absurdist Macbett, from Imaginary Beasts at the BCA (through this weekend).

Although to be honest, Ionesco doesn't so much derive from his Shakespearean source as attack it; at the bottom of the Bard's arguably-darkest tragedy, Ionesco still perceives an essentially naive, romantic illusion regarding personal moral dimension - which he ruthlessly dismantles.  In Macbett, the hero's royal victim, Duncan, is himself a slime bag, and half-mad to boot (and the incoming heir to the throne seems just just as bad).  Indeed, everyone in the play is corrupt, or will soon be corrupted.  Power is the only morality, while ideas like "destiny" are just a cheap trap for the gullible (Ionesco's "witches" are merely tricksters- indeed, maybe they're only Missus Macbett in disguise!).  Thus "tragedy," at least as Shakespeare defined it, does not, and cannot, exist.

Now I'm not going to argue any of these ideas in the abstract - for in the end, Ionesco is only re-iterating a point that the ravages of the twentieth century seem to have already  made for him.  But I will argue, however, that the playwright doesn't seem able to sustain this point through two acts of a satire which feels quite a bit longer than its source.  Indeed, Macbeth towers over Macbett, which rambles, and gets a bit repetitive and convoluted, and yet doesn't achieve anything like the depth that Beckett conjured through the (seemingly similar) repetitions of Waiting for Godot.  Instead, despite a few inspired episodes, you can slowly feel the theatrical equivalent of the Law of Diminishing Returns kicking in for Ionesco, even as he gropes for a dramaturgical exit. So maybe there's something to be said for naive, romantic illusion -  at least in this example of the Theatre of the Absurd, the joke in the end seems to be on the audience.

Which isn't to say that the current, clever production from Imaginary Beasts doesn't have its compensations.  There are two particularly strong performances here, from fringe stalwarts Joey Pelletier (as Duncan) and Scott Sweatt (as Macbett), that are probably the best things either actor has done in some time (even if both get a little shouty - in the BCA Black Box we're only five feet away, guys).  Pelletier brings a sharp, sallow wit to Duncan's sleazy shenanigans, while Sweatt becomes a compellingly perverse Macbett once he has tasted power; indeed, his gleeful kissing of the corrupting crown is one of the most disturbing things I've seen onstage in some time.

The rest of the cast is strong, but not quite as distinctive - although intriguing turns come from Nate Gundy (above) and Kiki Samko.  In an Imaginary Beasts show, however, actor intention and achievement are always a complicated thing to parse, because the troupe's signature style of movement and imagery, devised by director Matthew Woods, often takes center stage.  Here, this is sometimes a blessing, but also occasionally a curse - for while it's true Ionesco is sometimes imagistic, in Macbett, well, not so much; here the dramatic mode is more often blunt, even brutal, simplicity.  And so Woods' signature style of evocative (yet inevitably artificial) movement can feel a little forced.

Still, the director does score several visual coups - the first appearance of the cast in body bags, and the transformation of the Macbetts into a life-size Punch and Judy, were both particularly apt, and the physical production, which seems balanced between a British pantomime and a Kurosawa movie, is filled with striking touches (like Macbett's samurai-by-way-of-Princess-Padme make-up) that stick with you well after the final curtain.  Students of Ionesco - or simply students of intelligent, exploratory theatre - will find much to admire in this stimulating production of a flawed, but intriguing, play.


  1. Thomas, you pretty much hit the nail on the head in accordance with my thoughts on the production. Two observations, I thought it was too long, but I saw it early in it's run and a colleague of mine connected to the group told me they managed to cut it down by 20 minutes (impressive!). As an actor, I was also struck by the sheer energy of the performers. They jumped up and down and tossed each other through the space for over two hours without hardly breaking a sweat it seemed, while constantly engaging with the giving circumstances and each other. Pretty impressive, I know I couldn't pull it off. Oh and a third thing, I thought the puppetry stuff was pretty cool. Textually, the "lemonade" sequence didn't add up for me in the whole scheme of Ionesco's meditation on tyranny, but it was one of the more laugh out loud funny parts of the play, for me anyway.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mike. You're right about the energy of the performers, they were tireless, and the theatre scene in general could use more of the vigorous physicalized acting of the Imaginary Beasts. I also agree with you that some of Ionesco's strangely whimsical moments didn't quite work. I got the impression he wasn't quite sold on his own reductionism, but hadn't quite hit on the right way to put that over.