Where there’s often an artistic tendency for a director to either re-design, re-invent or completely re-imagine a classic Shakespearean play and make it his or her own, there’s something refreshing about seeing a basic, no-frills production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth as currently performed at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre. It’s like experiencing a faint echo of what audiences may have witnessed at London’s Globe when actors entered on a mostly empty stage and declared their lines with as much projection without amplification as possible in order for everyone on every level in the open-roofed city theatre to hear.
In director Gary Zaro’s new production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, now performing in the Actor’s Cafe at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre until June 4, actors are not required to project in quite the same way as in the Globe, downgrading the potential to overact, and lines don’t have to sound like declarations, but comparisons can still be drawn, and enjoyed. The setting in this production is mostly empty, the exception being one centrally raised platform with a few steps either side, a curtain entrance stage left, and a doorway stage right, nothing more. And the whole thing is painted black, a reflection of the darkness and doom that pervades even the story’s daylight hours.
In the sixteen hundreds, audiences didn’t say they were going to see a new play by Shakespeare, they said they were going to hear a new play. Listen to any Shakespearean BBC audio production recorded from a radio drama and you’ll understand what was meant. With just a few scene-setting sound effects to establish atmosphere, it’s very easy to follow what’s happening with the Barb’s descriptive text alone. And so it is here with Zaro’s Desert Stages low-budget production. Actors enter in period costumes with personal props, but scene changes offer no new set designs, neither tables nor chairs, or anything else reflecting a different location. With just a few recorded sound effects, such as thunder, a distant clanging bell, a trumpet fanfare, and some background nature sounds, you could close your eyes and simply listen, losing nothing in the narrative, though by doing so, in this case, you’d be missing the sight of four extremely good, expressive performances.
Desert Stages’ Actor’s Cafe is essentially a large performance room where the seating is redesigned with every new production. For Macbeth there are four rows before the raised stage area. This creates an atmosphere of intimacy not always afforded audiences in regular theatres; no matter where you sit, everyone in the house has a close-up view of the actors. Such a setting comes with both its pluses and minuses. By being right there with a practical in-your-face view of all the performers, weaknesses of a less experienced actor are more easily revealed, though at the same time, having such close proximity to performers fully immersed in their characters can also highlight their professional strengths. With this Macbeth, both occur.
With just a few exceptions, many of the supporting cast do double duty, often more. Occasionally, with only a change of costume to indicate a difference in character, by neglecting a change of voice or altering the expressive delivery of Elizabethan English, some audiences less familiar with Shakespeare’s play might be forgiven for becoming somewhat confused, thinking that a character believed gone had suddenly returned. Plus, due to the closeness of seating, it’s clear that a couple of stylishly shaved hairstyles and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses are anything but seventeenth century. Special mention, though, to J. Kevin Tallent for conveying Shakespeare’s intended brief moment of levity with Porter, the keeper of the keys to Macbeth’s home, speaking as though he’s the gatekeeper to hell – which, in fact, he is – and the actor’s ability to recreate a different performance as Lady Macbeth’s concerned doctor.
The three weird sisters, the witches, are also effective, even if their black-lined makeup channels community theatre. In fairness, the look is another victim of the Actor’s Cafe intimacy; those same designs would appear more effective if viewed from a distance. But the three performers themselves, Megan Holcomb, Autumn Alton and Diana Meyer, nicely convey a sense of glee with their evil, particularly Meyer, as they plant their seeds of ambition into Macbeth’s mind. Whether their words are truly prophesy with supernatural knowledge of oncoming events when they tell of Macbeth being king has been a point of debate since the play was first performed. If they had kept their distance and said nothing, would Macbeth had acted the murderous way he did, the result of seeking power for power’s own sake, or would he have continued on as the noble, likable warrior that he was? What was really the witches’ intent? The giveaway is in the famous line, “Double, double, toil and trouble.” They’re there to cause mischief for their own demented pleasure. By telling him what is, what he will soon discover, and what he will eventually become, as though things are already preordained, Macbeth is seduced, intoxicated. Murder, cruelty and madness follows, and that’s what the witches were wanting all along.
Jason Barth and Bryan N. Stewart as Banquo and Macduff respectively posses natural qualities in their delivery that makes their performances both convincing and likable, plus Virginia Olivieri’s Lady Macbeth captures her character’s lustful ambition without ever overstepping into histrionics. With the gritting of teeth and the look of fire behind her eyes, her character’s single-minded, power hungry determination is effectively funneled in the same way that her callous nature is exposed. When Lady Macbeth reveals that she would have killed the king herself had he not resembled her father, both her coldness and her weakness surface. She has no overall problem with committing murder, but by thinking of her father, we see there’s still some humanity within, and it’s this reveal, this weakness that infects and festers her very being. Guilt emerges and causes madness, illustrated in the sleepwalking scene where the blood that was washed away with water in the first half is now a permanent, symbolic stain that can’t be removed in the second. Olivieri convinces when expressing the determination as well as the guilt-induced madness.
But this is Rick Davis’ play. As Macbeth, Davis conveys the Scottish nobleman’s initial friendly nature, then his puzzled, introspective reasoning, his developing and dangerous self-absorbed manner, and finally his complete embracement of his spiraling descent into an unyielding, murderous lust, from which he can never return. It’s a significant performance on any level, but seen in such an intimate setting as Actor’s Cafe, there’s never a chance to escape the spell Davis casts. “Is this a dagger I see before me?’ he asks. Actually, no; look closer. It’s a spellbound audience who, in an otherwise bare-bones production, can’t turn away.
Pictures Courtesy of Dana and Heather Butcher