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Sound and Fury 

Cal Shakes' Macbeth places the art before the horse

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
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Ever since Jonathan Moscone took over the California Shakespeare Festival two years ago, it's been a dunning refrain in this column that Cal Shakes can pull off comedy but not tragedy. Moscone lightened the mood around the Orinda amphitheater; he hires freewheeling, experimental directors who do great things with controversial shows like The Taming of the Shrew but odd and sometimes disastrous things with Hamlet. Moscone's third season follows the same pattern. His own production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in June was light, imaginative, and charming, and this month's Macbeth is, well, light, imaginative, and charming.

Kate Whoriskey directs the show. She's a young graduate of the American Repertory Theatre school in Cambridge, Mass., with a growing national reputation. "She has a very special visionary and symbolic imagination," says her mentor, Robert Brustein, in an interview on ART's Web site, "that isn't rooted in any mundane reality." Her Cal Shakes debut bears out half of Brustein's praise: It is visionary -- or visual, anyway. The open stage in Orinda, with its view of the brush-grown hills, has been closed by a pair of tall, foreboding black boxes (which turn out to be horse barns) flanking a display case with three white statues on pink sand. The human figures have animal heads (a bull, a snake, and a ram) gazing in curious directions. They overlook a downstage covered in what could be a soft peat bog but is really ground-up tires. When the lights dim, a cello and a violin pulse nervously over pop drums, like something from Hooked on Classics, and the Weird Sisters come on wearing boots, short dresses, and pink-dyed halos of feathers that must have been filched from a new wave video circa 1985. They dance with black-dressed men -- Marc Morozumi's choreography could belong to the same video -- and then a soldier crosses the amphitheater, along a concourse between the seats, on a horse.

That's right: a live, cantering horse. Clop-clop-clop.

This introduction sets a tone for the show. Whoriskey wants to enchant her audience with strange, disorienting visions, and, accordingly, Boris McGiver's Macbeth stands around for the first scenes in a kind of dumb amaze, rounding his eyes and baring his teeth as if he can't believe the witches are wearing such outré costumes or as if his lines were still new and uncomfortable on his tongue. The explanation for this funny behavior turns out to be mundane: In a letter about the Weird Sisters to his wife, Macbeth writes, "Whilst I stood rapt in the wonder of it ...." So McGiver was being rapt in wonder. Too much of his performance, unfortunately, feels just as thin and literal.

Mia Barron's Lady Macbeth is also wide-eyed and earnest, almost innocent at first. She wears outfits that make her look like a suburban housewife dressed for a ball. (The Macbeths are consummate social climbers.) She's a crisp, clear presence onstage, but her speeches have more noise than feeling. Even a couplet like "'Tis safer to be that which we destroy/ Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy" has depths of pathos that Barron hardly scrapes.

She and McGiver do have a couple of good scenes that dredge below their usual level of light, uncommitted acting. Both scenes come near the end, when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and her husband expects an immortal reign from the Weird Sisters' prophecy. The witches say Macbeth won't be killed by any man "of woman born," and he figures this phrase rules out his rival Macduff, who has a mom like everybody else. During a sword fight Macduff tells Macbeth he was ripped from his mother's womb in a kind of medieval C-section. "Accursed be that tongue that tells me so!" cries Macbeth, "... and be these juggling fiends [the witches] no more believed,/ That palter with us in a double sense." McGiver frees himself with these lines; the whole amphitheater can feel the death of a king's ambition.

The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is just as strong. Barron finds a new and subtle way to deliver "Out, damned spot," and means it when she says "Hell is murky" or "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."

The most consistent and solid performance in the show belongs to James Carpenter, though, as Macduff. He's an unpretentious and heart-stirring rebel against Macbeth's lunatic reign, especially when he learns from Ross that his wife and children have been killed. "Dispute it like a man," says Ross, and Macduff answers, tremblingly, "I shall do so/ But I must also feel it as a man." That moment seems like the emotional center of the play.

Still, these patches of good acting can't prop up the grandeur of Whoriskey's vision, or the drama of Robert Pyzocha's scenery. Their stage images have an eerie, dark allure, but when the display case with pink sand rolls off to the synthetic thunder of a drum machine, or the new wave witches come out to dance among the bony trees of Birnham Wood, there's a clanking phoniness to the production that belongs to another show.

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