Sunday, October 14, 2012

Double, double, this Macbeth is in trouble

Allyn Burrows reacts to slashing something - maybe the text?
I don't know why, but Macbeth seems to drive the Actors' Shakespeare Project crazy.  Their last version of it was an all-female free-for-all that cut the play to ribbons and was pretty much completely incoherent.  And while there are some boys on stage this time, once again a strange kind of feminine hysteria hovers over the production, and needless to say, the play has been cut to ribbons and is pretty much completely incoherent.

Sigh.  Local affection for actress Paula Plum, who directed this disaster (for the record, I love her as much as anybody as an actress) will no doubt lead to misleadingly positive notices for this turkey.  But I'm warning you, do not believe her middle-aged fanboys!  This talented lady is over her head here, I'm afraid, and her dude-posse - yeah, nice guys all, I know - should really be reviewing the Patriots rather than Shakespeare.

I will admit there's a method to Plum's madness - let's call it back-story mania. And the back-story she has made the backbone of her Macbeth is Lady M's, not her hubby's.  Now decades ago, when I was in college, the question "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" was considered evidence of amusing aesthetic naiveté.  But basically that's the question Plum has built her production around.

For those not familiar with this particular text, that notorious query stems from one stanza that sticks out from Lady's M's murderous suggestions to Macbeth like a sore thumb (given that there are no kids in evidence at Dunsinane):

I have given suck, and know 
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: 
I would, while it was smiling in my face, 
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, 
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn 
As you have done to this.

It's memorable, isn't it - and essentially evidence of Lady M's mad, willful stripping away of all feminine feeling.  She has already called on the fates to "un-sex" her, and elsewhere she taunts her husband with the jibe that a real man would have no problem committing murder.  Now she tells us her vaunting ambition has pushed her beyond even any maternal feeling (surely the deepest instinct of the species).

This being Shakespeare, of course, those lines resonate and echo throughout the play; part of what makes the canon great is the way in which its texts operate not merely as narratives but as webs of thematic investigation.  And here sterility and gender and power are at the center of Shakespeare's concerns - only not at all in the way Plum imagines.

For clearly the Macbeths' vanished spawn are yet another example of those Shakespearean lacunae (like the disappearance of the Fool in Lear) that are meant to tease us subconsciously; what's more, they're just one more facet of an incredibly wide mosaic: the Macbeths themselves may be sexy as hell, but they're childless, and so essentially sterile - while the Witches, Banquo tells us, are genderless: both men and women (and not quite either), they play with strangled babes, and the blood of animals that have eaten their litters.  Meanwhile Macduff, the only person who can kill Macbeth, is "not of woman born" (and he is only able to do so once his own children are slain, and thus he also has become "sterile").  And we note that Malcolm, who replaces Macbeth on the throne, is a virgin, "yet unknown to woman" - while Banquo's issue only joins the royal lineage once he himself is dead.

So the grim sterility of power is one of the cruxes of Macbeth - those among its characters who would tempt or tamper with the political fates are almost always "sterilized" as a result.  Perhaps Plum understands this, but she turns these concerns into a strange, neurotic back-story for Lady M that pulls focus from the actual drama and adds nothing to our understanding of the play.  She actually opens the production with a confusing funeral (later we realize it must have been for that babe who so tenderly milked our leading lady), and then keeps Lady M around in scenes she's not in, listening via radio to the battles of Act I (the production is set, to some positive effect, somewhere after - or during? - World War I).  But alas, the nuns who attended that initial interment stick around too, and turn out to be our Three Witches, and this proves a disastrous choice - nuns these days simply come with too much comic baggage, and of course Plum has to slash their lines to the bone to dodge all the pagan references, and keep her Catholic-school conceit going.

But then she can't keep her hands off the text in general - I'd say the play has been cut by a third; I actually lost track of all the great lines that are missing, even though incredibly, somehow the whole thing still clocks in at two and half hours!  (How'd they do that?)  What's more, Plum has re-arranged things at will, so sometimes missing speeches pop back in when you least expect them.  And needless to say, she has made several male characters, like Banquo and Macduff's son, female because - well, just because, you know, women and stuff!  Oh, and Banquo seems to be a Red Cross volunteer - what?

While watching all this, I admit I had no idea what Plum thought she was plumbing; luckily, she has provided her own exegesis in the program notes, where you can read that she was inspired by Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, which of course has absolutely nothing to do with Macbeth (but which did inspire Ken Russell's The Devils).  The director also writes that she was greatly influenced by a player piano she came across in the pit of the theatre.

O-kay!  No wonder Allyn Burrows, probably this troupe's most reliable actor, seems to have checked out as Macbeth until the last act (where he does finally show some life, to be fair). If only Mara Sidmore had followed suit - she's capable of a much better Lady M. than the melodramatic caricature Plum has drawn from her here; but then I get the impression she and her director were involved in a kind of folie à deux during rehearsal.  The witches, for their part, are helpless before their gi-normous wimples, but some of the boys get some traction when they're left alone. The skillful Richard Snee made a wry Porter, and James Andreassi understood that it's best to underplay Macduff's grief; meanwhile Ross MacDonald managed an intriguing (if minimal) profile as Ross.  The surprise was newcomer Edmund Donovan, who actually pulled off Malcolm's impossible speeches in Act 4.  Indeed, oddly, this trickiest of all scenes in Macbeth - which I've never actually seen work before - was probably the strongest sequence in this addled production.

You know, I'll vent a little further here, probably because I just saw an exciting production of Hamlet from London that featured actors no more talented than we have here in Boston.  Honestly, between Allyn Burrows, Ross MacDonald, James Andreassi, Edmund Donovan, Joel Colodner, Nigel Gore, Johnny Lee Davenport, Bill Barclay, Benjamin Evett, Richard Snee, Steven Barkhimer, Michael Forden Walker, Maurice Parent and Gabriel Kuttner, among others - not to mention Marianna Bassham, Marya Lowry, Obehi Janice, and Ms. Plum herself  - we have a fine troupe of Shakespeareans in Boston.  You could do just about every goddamn play in the canon with these people. So why can't ASP pull it together more often than they do???  Seriously, I'm just frustrated by now - how do these wacky, half-baked misfires keep happening? Clearly internal politics, bad castings, and variable direction often undo the troupe's best intentions.  Or is their very M.O. - that the actors call the shots - fundamentally flawed, perhaps actually as fallible as the model behind the ART's dreadful old director-driven Shakespearean train wrecks?  Can these good actors ever admit that they need better, stronger direction?  Oh, who knows - in the meantime, let's just blame Aldous Huxley, or maybe that player piano . . .

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