“Blood and Thunder in the PST’s Macbeth”
By Jennifer Kramer
April 10, 2016
(Photos by Kendall Whitehouse)
2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, now beginning their season with Macbeth. One could easily expect some bombastic spectacle in celebration of these landmarks. But as director Carmen Khan notes in the program, the play follows “the slow, inexorable unfolding of the consequences of [Macbeth’s] crime, in the minds of Macbeth and his wife […] in the crumbling discipline of his administration […] in the devastation of Scotland itself,” and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre chooses instead to showcase their talents through the subtleties and restrained chaos of the Scottish play.
Khan cites inspiration from the paintings of Francisco Goya and Francis Bacon (the artist, not the empiricist/alleged secret identity of Shakespeare), whose most obvious influence on the production is the atmosphere. Bethanie Wampol’s set contains some more specific nods: wood panelling frames the back of the stage as it would a painting, and the vertical slats of the movable wooden screen before the cyclorama recall the interesting visual distortions in Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (among others). The cyclorama is one of the only sources of color on the set, largely projecting a royal and bloody gradient of purple and red. The thrust stage and shallow stairs to the platform upstage are also made of wood, and the dried fronds of some plant are bound in sheathes to the back of the screen, creating a sense of barrenness and desiccation. Though free from typical horror imagery, the atmosphere is nonetheless uniquely unsettling.
Costume designer Vickie Esposito does a nice job with period-inspired costumes, evoking Middle Ages Scotland without overdoing it on historical authenticity or plaid. In further nods to Goya and Bacon, the witches are dressed in black and smeared in lines of charcoal, and the color palette of the production as a whole is muted but not monotone. The evocative blood red of the cloaks, robes, and gowns of the royal family (whichever one may be in power at the time) stands out amongst blacks, browns, dark greens, and slate blues. Costume changes follow the fortunes of the lead couple. Lady Macbeth’s look evolves from a dark green day dress, to a similar velvet gown lined with fuchsia and trimmed with gold, to an even more sumptuous red velvet dress when she becomes queen. Macbeth, meanwhile, seems most at ease in the relatively simple brown leather tunic and green cloak in which he begins the play; his red velvet cape and flowing scarlet gown provoke visible discomfort. The technical difficulty of these frequent changes ultimately pays off. Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in her nightgown is a shocking deviation from her sartorial exactitude. Macbeth returns to his simple leather tunic when he receives the prophecies of his seeming invincibility and likewise regains some of his drive and energy from the beginning of the play—though both energy and outfit are ultimately a poor fit with his position as king.
Overall the cast is very strong, if occasionally veering towards declamatory. John Zak’s Duncan is an idealistic and tactile king more likely to give out hugs than orders, playing up the injustice of his murder and the contrast with Macbeth’s reign of terror. As the son of Macduff, Jenna Kuerzi manages to pull off precocious without being precious. Elise Hudson, Julia Jensen Ray, and Sarah Stryker as the witches deliver an excellent tripartite performance, one that never goes over the top despite the hissing, cackling, and vomiting of blood. Their movements are always in sync, whether recoiling from Banquo’s “I’ th’ name of truth!” or struggling to hold up their staves as if the weight of their magic is bearing them down. The staging of the prophecy scene is genuinely creepy, as the three engage in a little light pyrotechnics before Stryker, eyes unblinking and head canted at an unnatural angle, acts as the visions’ mouthpiece.
Annabel Capper offers an interesting interpretation of Lady Macbeth: one who is always moving, quivering with nerves and excitement, whether contemplating the couple’s elevation or reaching out to futilely soothe her husband or clutching her goblet half-extended in a toast as she tries to reassure their party guests. The other characters rarely seem to mark her nerviness, and her swoon when Duncan’s murder is discovered seems entirely genuine, further reinforcing the impression that her high-strung nature is well-known. However, this does backfire somewhat as the play progresses: it becomes difficult to tell how much Lady Macbeth’s condition has deteriorated, as Capper maintains a level of nervous energy throughout.
Rob Kahn’s Macbeth initially appears to balance his wife’s high tension with a calm steadiness. However, Kahn subtly introduces a number of cracks in Macbeth’s facade at all stages of his journey. When Duncan begins to name his heir, Macbeth begins to step confidently forward, only to falter wrong-footed when the king makes Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland; his confidence is revealed to be in part entitlement, and Kahn shows the sting of its loss and Macbeth’s discomposure at being thwarted in an ambition he had only just learned about. After Macbeth has fulfilled his ambition and become king, Kahn makes it clear the position never sits easily on Macbeth’s shoulders: he seldom meets people’s eyes, anxiously bats at the folds of his heavy cloak and robe, and compulsively rubs his wife’s hands, an ostensible gesture of comfort that inevitably recalls their bloody deed. After his breakdown in the banquet scene (where Kahn does fine work reacting only to an empty chair, even glancing nervously back as he exits the stage) Macbeth seems to regain some of his assurance when he visits the witches and learns of his apparent invincibility. However, Kahn clearly shows that this energy is destructive inside and out. Macbeth hurtles towards the play’s conclusion laughing evilly and taunting his foes of woman born, at the cost of being unable to mourn his wife and striking terror in his own people. When he finally confronts Macduff, Kahn shows Macbeth’s realization that his confidence was in error, and his final fight is fueled only by stubbornness and the dying remains of his momentum.
Director Carmen Khan skillfully guides this evolution, playing out the contrast between the gracious Duncan and that tyrant Macbeth. She shows a similar skill with the production’s use of violence and the supernatural, as carefully deployed as her references to Goya and Bacon. Gore is frequent but not overdone; Macbeth’s appearance after Duncan’s murder is dramatically sprayed with blood, but all subsequent callbacks—bloody knives, a witch regurgitating blood into their cauldron, a wound in the shape of the blood-spatter on Macbeth’s head—are deliberately restrained. Meanwhile, Khan simultaneously plays up and plays down the play’s supernatural elements. There are many sound effects (the shriek of night birds, warning buzz of rattlesnakes, appropriately timed rolls of thunder, and distant screaming, all courtesy of composer/sound designer Fabian Obispo) but few visuals; none of the visions appear onstage, so while the audience can hear the ominous events described through voice and noise, they must focus on the reactions of the actors.
The result is a production that feels traditional without sacrificing a sense of excitement or the adrenaline of horror. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Macbeth relies on the strength of Shakespeare’s stagecraft to showcase their ingenuity and talent, a worthy celebration of their years of accomplishments as well as an encouraging prophecy of productions to come.