By Neal Zoren
May 4, 2016
(Photos by Kendall Whitehouse)
MACBETH, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, through Saturday, May 21 — Carmen Khan does the best thing a director can do for Shakespeare. She lets him speak for himself and concentrates on character and story, instead of grand theme or effects, in this marvelously direct, deliciously straightforward, deftly affecting production of the Bard’s lauded Scottish Play. Khan and her ensemble aim for clarity in detail and achieve their objective. Nuances of “Macbeth” that are lost in busier, more stylistically high-concept productions, come forth to give Khan’s production richness that lets you savor all that Shakespeare put into this work. “Macbeth” has been frequently staged these last few years. Khan’s production for Philadelphia Shakespeare joins only Patrick Mulcahy’s equally unadorned “Macbeth” is showing the play’s full majesty and making it both thematically telling and theatrically exciting. Others, including Jack O’Brien’s staging at Lincoln Center, relinquished parts of the play in their attempt to dazzle or impress. Khan knows the real ticket and puts forward the genuine article, a play that lets you see a man in doubt and turmoil as he’s persuaded to act to hasten his advancement and becomes suspicious of all who may know his foul deed and see how ill-fitting his crown is and how timorous his days are since he acquired it. By putting story first, Khan’s production shows you the tragedy of Macbeth and makes you wonder what might have happened if he’d followed his better nature and waited to see if the witches’ prophecy of his becoming Scotland’s kings comes to be.
Adding to Khan’s achievement is her ability to build suspense and provide texture while letting Shakespeare’s words and her cast’s fine readings and characterizations do the heavy lifting. Small touches, such as having the witches dance in ritual but limiting their makeup to just enough to convey haggardly misshapenness, or having John Zak’s Duncan look concerned for a badly wounded soldier even as he delays him to hear of Macbeth and Banquo’s battlefield exploits, go a long way. Khan even knows where to edit. As much as we may love the witches’ entire “Double, double” speech, Khan uses only its refrain and leaves the “recipe” (eye of newt) on the page instead of on the stage. She also made a good, and rather daring, choice to keep Banquo corporally off-stage and have Macbeth react to imagined appearances of him during the banquet scene that follows Banquo’s murder. Khan is distinct in her work. She interprets little but decisively. You see Macbeth pondering the witches’ words on the heath where they pronounce them. You see his many waverings, back and forth, until he decides he will participate in the assassination of Duncan.
Robert Kahn is excellent at showing Macbeth in his confusion about what to do and in involving you in his quandary. You see this Macbeth as human. Honor and gullibility exist together in the man. Resolve and agreeing to Lady Macbeth’s plan to kill Duncan are definitely at war in Kahn’s face and in the tenor of his speeches. You feel for this Macbeth, have pity for him, and believe he may do the correct instead of the expedient thing in regard to his being the host and safeguarding the safety of Duncan. In Khan’s production, which even makes the speed in which Lady M. receives Macbeth’s news-filled letter plausible, it is clearly Annabel Capper’s Lady Macbeth who is both the catalyst and the driving force for Macbeth’s ambition and murderous ways. Kahn’s Macbeth may be influenced by the witches and drawn to thinking about how he can become the king they say he shall be, but it is Capper’s scolding, unyielding Lady Macbeth who will brook no other way to the Scottish throne than the “nearest” way, murdering Duncan. The nobles of both Duncan’s and Macbeth’s retinue are well defined. Khan’s is a cast skilled in classic diction, and everyone does well by Shakespeare’s verse as well as in playing his or her role. Kahn is especially strong in showing the change in Macbeth after he is king and insecure in his role. Capper is a curious but effective Lady M. From the first time we see her Lady Macbeth, she seems on edge and perpetually nervous. You suspect she’s had some kind of breakdown, perhaps from the loss of her child from her restless pacings and her worn, worried look. Capper’s Lady M. perks up during the murder scene, its immediate aftermath, and the banquet festivities, but she reverts to what seems like a depressive torture as Lady M. declines.
Another admirable part of Khan’s production is the sense of time she provides between major occurrences. For once, you perceive there’s been intervals between Duncan’s death, Macbeth’s investiture, Macbeth’s onset of paranoia and tyranny, and the occasion of the banquet in which he sees the slain Banquo’s ghost. Rarely does a production so clearly give the impression of time passing. Doing so enriches the text and makes all seem more logical. Khan made a good choice of actors, Robert Kahn elicits pity and terror as Macbeth. Annabel Capper is the right kind of frightening as the early Lady Macbeth and sadly vulnerable in her later scenes. Capper is particularly arresting in the famous sleepwalking scene. John Zak is a Duncan that conveys why Scottish subjects are so loyal to and affectionate towards their king. His performance adds to the dilemma Macbeth has in deciding whether or not to kill his monarch. Eric van Wie is a magnificent Banquo. He establishes himself as a reasonable, yet daring, man in his first scene when he inveighs the witches to say something of his fortunes, He exudes the honorable nature of Banquo and neither seems pompous and jealous nor fades into the Inverness stone, only to emerge when the script calls for it. Van Wie makes you care for Banquo and rue his impending murder. Van Wie speaks as clearly as others and gives an estimable performance, but his voice is flatter than his castmates’ and one wishes the excellence of his reading was matched by a more classic catch to his voice. That last comment is a cavil considering van Wie’s grand work and is mentioned more as construction than as criticism.
Josh Kachnycz is an attractive, trustworthy Malcolm and, again, this production makes the prince’s fleeing after Duncan’s murder more reasonable than the mere plot device it generally seems to be. Kachnycz’s scene with William LeDent’s Macduff, in which the two test each other to see if they should ally and if Scotland is the better for their rebellion/resistance against Macbeth, is a highlight of the production. LeDent, as Macduff, shows as many sides to his character as Khan brings out the various themes and leitmotifs of “Macbeth.” You see him as a skilled statesman, a devastated husband and father, and as a fierce, committed warrior. Michael Gamache, as usual, efficiently establishes his character, Ross, endowing him with personality and giving depth to the production, while relinquishing the stage when appropriate to the principal characters. Elise Hudson is a touching Lady Macduff. Eric van Wie compounds his excellence as Banquo with a fine and funny turn as the porter. Adam Kampouris makes a mark while doing well in several roles. Alexander Eltzroth does a fine job as Fleance, whom Khan has envisioned as bordering on adulthood, a good choice on several levels, including Fleance’s ability to fight to get away from the murderers who were supposed to kill him along with his father. Bethanie Wampol’s set serves all situations well. Grade: A