American Shakespeare Center’s Macbeth: A Review

Written by Kylie Warkentin

While I stood in line on the night of February 28th waiting to be let into Hogg Auditorium for the American Shakespeare Center’s performance of Macbeth, Dr. Cullingford, a University Distinguished Teaching Professor and the Chair of the English Department, luxuriously slinked down the line asking after her Oxford Program students. As her sharp figure sweeped past, I thought to myself: Yeah, she’d make a pretty great Lady Macbeth.

For the uninitiated (as I was, at least until I was forcibly made aware), the American Shakespeare Center is unique for its dedication to an authentic Shakespearean experience. Put flippantly (and in their own words), they “do it with the lights on:” the entire play is performed under universal lighting in an effort to mimic the lighting conditions of Shakespeare’s time, thus allowing the actors on stage to engage with the audience in an unique way. Additionally, before, during, and after the play, the actors perform music, as the actors in Shakespeare’s troupe would have done.

These quirks of the ACS meant hearing an excellent rendition of “Red Right Hand” and other vaguely southern gothic rock songs (featuring a harmonica/banjo combination performed with breathless abandon!) as you tried in vain to find a good seat amongst the mass of people waiting to see Macbeth. It also meant being uncomfortably aware of the gentleman to your right googling the synopsis of Macbeth on his iPhone as the Weird Sisters shrieked and writhed on stage for the play’s opening lines.

The performance of Macbeth itself was solid, though I left feeling ambivalent. On the whole, I’m not sure how well the commitment to the Authentic Shakespeare Experience™ worked for a modern audience. The universal lighting functioned mostly as a detriment to the immersion required to appreciate fully the mystical tragedy of Macbeth, though I can recall two instances when the actors were able to utilize their view of the audience with poignant success (first when the lonely Macbeth, played by Clader Shilling, reached desperately towards the audience for guidance; later when Lady Macbeth, played by Ally Farzzetta, struggled to reconcile the isolation from her husband while the audience witnessed her misery). The music was a fun touch! But the only instance where bagpipes made an appearance was during the intermission, which I consider an atrocity to God and Scottish twitter.

Something else I found intriguing was the depiction of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Director Ben Curns describes their grasp for power as a “mistaken belie[f]” that (spoilers!) killing Duncan “will fuel their ambition, bring them closer, and make them happier”—mistaken because the “moment they put the throne in front of each other, their marriage begins to dissolve.” On stage, this characterization was seen mainly in the aforementioned moments of isolation between the two. It was hard to see this view of the two because the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth felt oddly…maternal? It seemed less like a couple in love with each other and power, and more of a mother reprimanding her buffoon of a son.

Some great moments that cement themselves to memory include Josh Clark’s dynamic and sharp portrayal of Banquo, which shouldered a large part of the work in melding the comedic with the tragedy with the supernatural—as evidenced by the chills that climbed my spine when the Weird Sisters (Annabelle Rollison, Hilary Caldwell, and Kyle Powell) and the apparitions surrounded Clark’s smilingly febrile ghost of Banquo to shake Macbeth to his core. Ronald Román-Meléndez’s drunk porter did a great Trump impression (and That!) when performing the lines, “Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven,” which was incredibly satisfying. And the revelation that Macduff, played by J. C. Long, was born via cesarean, was the play’s tightest crescendo to sudden silence.

On the whole, a good performance! But I wanted bagpipes (and also Dr. Cullingford in her God-given role of Lady Macbeth).

*Kylie learned of the ASP Macbeth play opportunity through the Jefferson Center for Core Texts and Ideas.

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