Bay Area Theater Veteran James Carpenter Stars in Berkeley Rep's Macbeth

James Carpenter

Bay Area actor James Carpenter has done his share of Shakespeare. (The American Conservatory Theater's Carey Perloff called him “…one of the finest American actors anywhere.”) He’s performed in Macbeth several times, including playing the title role in a Santa Cruz production which San Francisco Chronicle critic Robert Hurwitt names as one of his favorite versions of the play, writing that Carpenter’s Macbeth “seemed to grow in magnitude as his character deteriorated.” And Carpenter has also performed with the California Shakespeare Theater, he played the same roles as in the upcoming Berkeley Repertory Theatre production — of Duncan and the Porter.

[jump] Carpenter, who has starred as Scrooge in A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol for years, is conscious of never wanting to do the same performance twice. So he’s grateful to have superstar Shakespeare director Daniel Sullivan, who won a Tony for Proof, was nominated for another one for The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, and has directed numerous Shakespeare plays for the Public Theater, helming this production.

“Dan has really been great in helping me see Duncan in another way. He’s described as being kind and benevolent, which can be boring as hell to play, as well as for audiences to watch,” Carpenter said. “Nobody is wonderful all the time. He might be a good ruler, but there’s been a war, and he’s maybe a little cranky and paranoid and feels challenged. Dan is helping me locate and define the shades of paranoia.”

Carpenter says he loves the play, which he sees as being about human choice, set in a twilight world between Christianity and paganism. For him, the witches who stir their cauldron in the opening scene while talking about toil and trouble aren’t evil.

“To my mind, they’re more like the fates, making and measuring and snipping yarn,” he said. “They only show him one thread and when he follows it, it doesn’t lead to good consequences. They equivocate, which is a major theme in the play.”

Carpenter calls the play is a machine that pulls actors in, one that needs complete focus, particularly in the title role.

At Berkeley Rep, that role will be played by stage, film, television, and radio star Conleth Hill, best known for Varys in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Tony, Emmy, and Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand plays his wife, Lady Macbeth. Berkeley Rep’s artistic director Tony Taccone says he’s thrilled to have actors of this caliber in the production.

He’s not the only one. Carpenter calls both of them wonderful, generous actors.

“They’re lovely, regular people. They don’t pull any star bullshit,” he said. “I’ve worked with famous people before and usually, they just want to be one of the gang. They don’t need to feel liked or special because people make them feel special all the time — they want to be part of the unique unit of the cast.”

Carpenter has often been called a treasure of Bay Area theater, appearing in dozens of Berkeley Rep productions as well as at the Aurora Theatre Company, Cutting Ball Theater, Magic Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Shotgun Players, and CalShakes. Growing up, Carpenter was determined to be an actor, even in the face of strong opposition from his father who constantly told him he wasn’t any good.

Carpenter says he persevered because he wanted it so much and was even more stubborn than his dad, who was worried about him making a living. Besides, he adds, he really wasn’t that good an actor when he started out. But when he was in his 20s, he played the lead role of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. He got the part with the caveat he take voice lessons — which made a big difference, he says, and he’s happy his father came to see it.

“I felt like a sponge — I just learned so much,” he said. “After the play, I came out from backstage, and my dad was just glowing with total pride, and from that point on he was totally behind me.”

Macbeth is a play everyone can relate to, Carpenter says.

“I love that Dan is just doing the play — he’s not putting any Nazis in it or anything,” he said. “He lets us make those comparisons by ourselves. You walk away from a Shakespeare play, and some things haven’t changed all that much. There will always be people who make crappy choices, and there will always be greedy, ambitious people who hoist themselves on their own petard. That’s what I love — he’s just doing the play and doing it really well.”

Macbeth, Feb. 26 – April 10, at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berkeley, $35-$145, 510-647-2949.

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