The Scots play
By Robin Abrahams
Mr. Improbable and I saw Actors' Shakespeare Project's all-female production of "Macbeth" last night to mixed reviews. "Mixed" is pretty good when you're dealing with the Scots play--there's a reason people think it's cursed, you know. A few thoughts--
The all-female casting. It didn't seem gimmicky, nor did it radically transform the nature of the play. I saw an all-female version of "Taming of the Shrew" once, and having only women in that play really opened up what you could do with the script. It didn't have a similar effect for "Macbeth." But it was a solid and well-thought-out artistic choice that led to some interesting awareness of the extent to which gender is a social construct--in the world of Macbeth and our world, as well--and the extent to which it is not. It also brought home, which I'd never quite noticed, how constantly all the characters are asserting their masculinity, encouraging each other to "be a man," or insulting each other by suggesting that masculinity is lacking.
Jacqui Parker as Banquo. Oh my Lord she was good. She owned the language, the language didn't own her. Complete authority--as an actress and as the character--just radiated from her. Why she wasn't cast as Macbeth is a mystery to me.
The set & lighting. ASP work wonders, they do, especially considering that they are peripatetic and have to master the idiosyncrasies of many performance spaces. This production was to a large extent lit by table lamps of varying sizes scattered around the performance area and moved about by the actors. And the way they did Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane was so clever, and effective, that spontaneous applause broke out.
What didn't work
The big "chair versus sponge" showdown. Okay, it wasn't as stupid as I just made it sound. ASP does violence well, and the way they portrayed killing in this play was to take a sponge soaked in stage blood and draw it quickly across the murdered actor's throat. Rather niftily done in the assassination of Lady Macduff and Baby Macduff, as was the horrifying suggestion that the throat-slitting was incompetently done and that as they lay moaning, their bodies were doused in gasoline and set aflame.
When he hears of this, Macduff gets his war on and goes after Macbeth with his own bloody sponge, and Macbeth tries to hit him with a chair. It just--lacked, somehow. Add one more household implement and you could rival rock-paper-scissors. Sponge washes chair, chair scuffs linoleum--oh, I don't know.
Bobbie Steinbach's clean armpits. Of course Bobbie Steinbach shaves her armpits, because she is a nice middle-aged, middle-class lady in the 21st century United States. But she is playing, among other roles, Witch #2, in a sleeveless gown, and the Weird Sisters do not shave their pits, I tell you what. "When shall we three meet again, in lightning, thunder, or in the hair-care products aisle of CVS?" The show's going on for a couple more weeks, Bobbie--let 'em grow. DeNiro gained 50 pounds to play Jake LaMotta, it's the least you can do for your art.
Lord & Lady Macbeth. I'm still on the fence about these two, which I don't think is a failure of the production, really. Maybe it's better to leave an audience a little disconcerted than to have them leave feeling that they know and understand everything about what they've just seen. So I'm not unhappy about this.
Anyone who's going to play Macbeth or Lady Macbeth has to deal with a lot of baggage that audiences bring in to the play--primarily, the notion that Macbeth is basically a nice guy who is driven to his bloody deeds by an insanely ambitious wife, which isn't the case. The Macbeths are equally ambitious, and share a remarkably intimate, egalitarian, and mature marriage. They like and respect each other. One of them gets a case of nerves, the other provides encouragement. They ask each other for advice, for emotional support. They help each other save face when situations get awkward with guests. Tony and Carmela should have a marriage so good.
Marya Lowry had charisma galore as Macbeth. He's not a nebbishy puppet of his wife, he's a warlord who took over a legitimate government--an interesting parallel to certain current events--and she played the role as such. And it is clear how far around the bend Macbeth has gone by the end of the play, when he is told that his Lady has died and barely takes a moment to mourn her. He has become a creature of pure war and madness. But one of the friends we saw the show with thought she was too one-note, and I'm not sure he's wrong. I'm also not sure it's a problem.
Paula Plum knocked it out of the park in Lady Macbeth's opening scene, in which she is reading her husband's letter telling of the prophecies of his future greatness, and also in the mad scene. In between, she was to my taste to uncomfortably domestic. Yes, the Macbeths are wonderfully intimate. But you know that exasperated yet affectionate tone women use when their husbands are ineptly performing some household task? ("That's not how you fold the--oh, I'll just do it myself.") I'm not sure that's the exact tone you should use when you're talking about assassinating people. "Oh, just give me the dagger! Honestly, men."