Theater: Empty inside

Berkeley Rep’s ‘Macbeth’ a letdown after hype

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Award-winning New York theater luminaries head the artistic team behind the Berkeley Rep’s production of ‘Macbeth,’ which stars Frances McDormand (right). Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Ever since the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) announced last fall that Macbeth would be included in the current season, anticipation has been building. Given artistic director Tony Taccone’s fondness for doing things differently, the general expectation was that BRT’s version would be something other than standard, connect-the-dots Shakespeare. The question was what?

Then came news that a pair of award-winning New York theater luminaries, Daniel Sullivan and  Douglas W. Schmidt, would head the artistic team as director and scenic designer, and the roles of the doomed Scottish king and his Lady would be played by Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand, both nationally known actors with long lists of credits in theater, TV and film. Clearly, something special was afoot.

Now that we’ve reached postpartum time, was the hype justified? Is this (as a BRT ad claims) “A Macbeth for the ages”?

Well … not quite. On the positive side, the no-expense-spared staging is spectacular. It begins even before a line is uttered as the entering audience is greeted by a swirling mass of gray/black storm clouds projected on a huge scrim that fills the proscenium of the Roda Theatre. Seconds after the house lights go down, we are transported to a barren landscape where three ancient hags (the famous “Witches”) crouch by a leafless tree on which a dead body is impaled. Writhing and hissing like a nest of restless vipers, they prepare to deliver a message to the approaching Macbeth and Banquo, who are returning from battlefield triumphs over Norwegian enemies of Scotland’s King Duncan—a message about the future that sets in motion the series of disastrous events that follow.

Sullivan fills the remaining two-plus hours with artful stage pictures, set against a scenic design by Schmidt that is remarkable for both its versatility and emotional impact. Alexander V. Nichols’ large-scale video projections contribute atmosphere and help with the storytelling, as is also true of Pat Collins’ evocative lighting design and the multi-layered sound wrap by Dan Moses Schreier.

In sum, BRT’s production values—the things that comprise the play’s “packaging”—are of very high quality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for what’s inside. Macbeth is more bloody melodrama than tragedy. Its protagonists, male and female, aren’t basically good people who are destroyed by fate or a character flaw. They’re simply power-hungry and morally weak. As that’s a hard pill to swallow for most audience members, actors have to win people over with the beauty of Shakespeare’s text while being as convincing as possible in roles and events that can seem absurd if closely examined.

This is often difficult for American performers, who lack the gravitas—an elusive quality that involves clarity of diction, vocal projection and self-assurance—of their English counterparts. In Macbeth, local actors James Carpenter (particularly in the second act Porter scene) and Scott Coopwood (Lennox) provide glimpses of what it takes. Otherwise, a casual flatness prevails (including with Hill and McDormand) that regrettably is at odds with the production’s exciting promise.

NOW PLAYING: Macbeth runs through April 10 at Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.

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