Shakespeare is tough, even under the best of circumstances.
The language and pace are precise, most times dictated by the playwright himself, and woe unto the actor or company who have the temerity to trifle with what the master wrote.
Soulstice Theatre did more than trifle with "Macbeth," one of the greatest tragedies ever written when they opened their production Thursday night.
To start with, the entire cast was made up of women.
To some, this may well have been a bold experiment in staging with a staggering surprise factor and new insights into the play. But I was only halfway through the first act when the question of the evening occurred.
There was nothing special about having women play all these parts. They didn’t bring any special insights to the characters that may well have been undiscovered over the last 4,000 years or so.
Part of the problem clearly was the caliber of the cast.
There are actors who study a lifetime, trying to do Shakespeare well. The language is special, but if you pay attention, you can tell where it’s going and what everything means.
This cast had only a nodding acquaintance with the rhythm of Shakespeare, perhaps the most important aspect to his language. He wrote it carefully, and it’s got to be handled carefully, or before too long, a production will head off the tracks and getting back on is nearly impossible.
It’s not that these actors weren’t trying. In some cases, they were trying almost too hard. They mugged and whispered and shouted and moved with almost no reason.
"Macbeth" is a classic story of ambition run amok and the lengths people will go to in order to get and maintain what they wanted. "Macbeth" is a classic example of how one crime demands another and another and so on.
When Shakespeare wrote his plays, there were no women actors. All the parts were played by men, and I’ve seen a number of productions that follow that example. Some were great, and some were not, but the gender issue never seemed to get in the way.
In the Soulstice production, the gender issue clearly was in the way. I was confused about whether the actors were pretending to be men or whether they were women saying the lines written for a man.
When Macduff was told of the murder of his wife and children, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that this Macduff looked like, acted like and in fact was, a woman.
I am all in favor of daring experiments in the world of theater.
Dale Gutzman at Off the Wall is famous for bending genders and taking risks. His "Romeo and Juliet," with the two stars in their 60’s, was a daring production that worked to perfection.
But bending gender just for the sake of doing it is, it seems to me, a childish exercise.
Last year, a production of David Mamet’s "Oleanna" changed one character in the two character play from a young woman to a young gay man. It totally changed the dynamic in the play.
In the Soulstice production, the question of "Why do this?" was never answered. You can talk about it in press releases and in notes in the program, but if there is no reason on the stage, it would be better to play the roles as written.
Their hearts were obviously in the right place, but this cast resembled nothing so much as a bunch of sixth graders in a Catholic elementary school who have shed their uniforms for the day and have a chance to act like the boys.
Nobody wins in this kind of mess.
"Macbeth" runs through Jan. 31 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.