Heavy metal Shakespeare. Loud, fast and violent.
That is the style the Optimist Theatre is giving us with its free outdoor production of "Macbeth" that opened last week on the Alverno College campus. The approach may work with "Titus Andronicus," but it misses the points in "Macbeth."
The Scottish play, as it is often called, is not Shakespeare's version of an action movie. Nuance and subtlety, motivation and psychology are essential ingredients. We must see into the title character and his conniving wife if the story is going to resonate with the 21st century's more sophisticated audiences.
I must regretfully report that this admirable theater company that finds a way to offer its annual Shakespeare production to the public at no charge totally misses the mark here.
Staging "Macbeth" is all about doing two things – establishing an eerily ominous tone, and making us voyeurs into a marriage that intertwines personal relationship with overwhelming lust for public power.
Early 17th century audiences felt much more threatened by witches than we do, so contemporary directors must be imaginative in presenting the play's trio of sorcerers and the message they deliver. Other devices can be explored to inject a darkly brooding aura into the production.
Having three actors simply recite the lines, accompanied by some tritely witchy choreography, makes no impact. Among the Optimist conjurers, a snakelike Libby Amato has the right idea, but she can't create the needed mood by herself.
Bad acting denies us the ability to get a sense of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the same flaw muddles the destructive personal repercussions of their successful scheme to murder the king. Tom Reed plays Macbeth with unrelenting intensity from the moment he sets foot onstage.
There isn't the slightest hint of doubt or hesitation in his portrayal of the title character. Reed is a steamroller in overdrive, racing through the plot, and he certainly doesn't need his wife to prod him into regicide.
Marti Gobel's Lady Macbeth is right behind him on the intensity meter. These two actors need to slow down and talk to each other. There is way too much posing and declaiming going on here.
Be real, and show us a true spousal connection. Don't fear quiet moments and expression of genuine emotion.
The dynamics of that marriage were unlikely to be important in Shakespeare's time, but it drives the show for modern audiences accustomed to psychological realism in theater.
In contrast to the stagey huffing and puffing from the leading actors, several supporting performances serve the play well. James Pickering crisply leads the way in three roles – the murdered king Duncan, the porter and the doctor. Beth Monhollen, Michael Cotey, Andrew Voss and David Ferrie are also clear, precise and effective.
The production's costumes are a confusing mishmash of styles and eras. Optimist Theatre has suffered from the severe belt tightening of key funders.
If budget issues place constraints on costuming, it would be better to put all of the actors in black tee shirts and slacks. The effect is to make the clothing invisible, and a distraction is removed.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.