Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Night in Harlem: Pulse Ensemble Theatre presents "Macbeth" at Riverbank State Park

Tonight we were at Riverbank State Park in Harlem to see an extraordinarily innovative and entertaining Macbeth, set in Afghanistan and directed by Alexa Kelly, a presentation of the company's sixth annual Pulse Ensemble Theatre’s Harlem Summer Shakespeare program and a featured part of Harlem Week.

This is the Pulse Ensemble Theatre's twentieth anniversary, and the company did a spectactular job in putting this production together, first as a site-specific performance on Governor's Island (the professional-looking photos here are publicity stills from that; the blurry cellphone pics are our own), and now at the beautiful amphitheater on the Hudson River.

It was a cool August evening that turned into a gorgeous night under the crescent Ramadan moon and the occasional droning of airplanes above, which, along with the resonant sound effects such as bombs falling and the muezzin's call for prayer, made the Afghan war setting come alive.

Despite working nearby in the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem at City College, we'd never before been to Riverbank State Park.

It's hard to believe that this beautiful park with incredible facilities is built on top of a massive sewage treatment plant, but then so is Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.

We arrived early, with only a few people coming before us.

Tonight was actually the second preview, and the Harlem Macbeth officially opens tomorrow night and will be playing Wednesday-Sunday for the next couple of weekends before ending on Saturday, August 28.

Director Alexa Kelly's setting Macbeth in Afghanistan, with the Macbeths and others serving in the military and wearing camouflauge outfits most of the time, and with King Duncan, his sons, and others (the scary masked murderers Macbeth enlists seem to be Taliban) in traditional Afghan dress, and with the witches in weird-sister burqas, was a stroke of genius.

It highlights, for one thing, some of the crucial issues of the play and of wars in countries like Afghanistan: the contrasts between autocratic but wise kingship as represented by Duncan and tyranny and anarchy of equally autocratic "strongmen"; the relationship of wanton cruelty (although many of the killings are offstage, there's blood everywhere here) and the manly military ethic (not limited by gender, since Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, Angus, Mentieth and others are female warriors; and the legitimacy of governance in a state overshadowed by perpetual war.

The sound system and body mics had a few glitches but they didn't detract from the action; Adam Jonas Segaller, giving a fine performance as the stolid Banquo, discarded his screeching mic at one point and was perfectly clear without amplifaction. The lighting, the wonderful costumes, and the use of the semicircular space in front of the stage to convey the hectic chaos of war as troops, terrorists and hysterical civilians ran back and forth, were all very effective.

Making the witches Afghan war widows, possibly won over to the terrorist side (which is what, we're never sure, since the line between the "sides" seems fluid, as it is in the real Afghanistan), but definitely out for revenge. Their chants sometimes take on the lilting cadence of liturgical prayer, and they have supernatural powers. Wendy Snow, Erica Chamblee and Regina Gibson offer up spectacular performances with their bodies - they whirl like Sufi dervishes at one heart-stopping point in the action - as well as their voices.

The mostly Equity cast was superb. As the American troops/Scottish nobles, Kara Addington, Mia Anderson, Mathew J, Harris and Shawn Williams are subtle and believable; they seem to be everywhere and always more restive than they let on.

Jeff Burchfield as Duncan is a wise and tolerant ruler, a bit too trusting and easy to fool; we'd be lucky to have him instead of Hamid Karzai, but in a country like his, an Afghan Duncan probably would meet the same fate as Shakespeare's does, done in by treacherous subordinates.

As his sons, Akeem Folkes in his brief appearance presents an understandably frightened Donalbain, and Paul Pontrelli as Malcolm gives an electric performance as medieval terror turns him from a sweet, slightly effeminate boy into a forceful and dynamic leader who's both unsentimental (in his stirring speech to Macduff) and compassionate (at the death in battle of his uncle's son).

Danny Makali’I Mittermeyer's Macduff is a gruff professional soldier who can compartmentalize his life in a way that other warlords in the play cannot, yet he evinces an integrity that would lead him today be a whistleblower of atrocities on his own side. Like Banquo, he has ambition but the moral sense (and maybe even common sense) that the power couple the Macbeths are lacking.

As Lady Macduff, Leigh Ellen Caudill (along with her blanket-swathed infant son) is a terrified victim of one of the play's numerous violent atrocities; we feel her helplessness, and as Hecate behind her black burqa and mask, she whips up the witches into a (religious?) frenzy of cruel retribution. Gregory Wool makes Fleance a playful, boyish fellow soldier to his father, Banquo (as we said, Adam Jonas Segaller was very strong in that role, and he also made a reproachful silent ghost); when he disappears, you wonder if his just-in-time escape from assassination along with Banquo will leave him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Of course, the success of the Scottish play turns on the actors playing the leads, and here Brian Richardson as Macbeth and ReneƩ Flemings are spellbinding. American military couples are not that unique today, and so their partnership in ambition and the savagery that is its result seems natural, especially when their intense sexual bond is so evident.

Ultimately it's clear that they're both suffering from PTSD, fueling their hallucinations and obsessions and instinctive use of violence to solve every problem. Their trauma manifests itself in different ways, and here it's clear that Lady Macbeth probably understands that even in an environment of nominal sexual equality, it's simply her gender that's prevented her from reaching the leadership position her husband has from the play's beginning. Richardson's mellifluous Caribbean accent seems to inform his chafing in the role of a honored but subordinate noble, and when he, like Flemings, becomes undone and more than a little hysterical, it's all the more poignant for their only somewhat successful efforts to reign in their demons.

Both Richardson and Flemings give line readings to their dialogue and monologues that suggests they're somewhat distracted by inner torments that they cannot quite get their fingers on. Their scenes together work perfectly, their machinations seemingly just a deadly extension of mutually self-destructive patterns that have played out during their entire marriage and the interminable war.

Director Kelly and the actors seem to us to have gotten to the core of the tragedy of the Macbeths and that of the chaos that is the real king of their country. Just as it's hard to determine exactly what's gone on in Afghanistan and what lies ahead for that graveyard of empires, it's hard to believe that it will end with the neat hopes of the victorious Macduff and the new king Malcolm have at the end of Macbeth.

The Pulse Ensemble Theatre's production seems a worthy successor to Orson Welles's legendary 1936 Harlem "voodoo Macbeth" set in Haiti. We're really grateful to have had the chance to see it.

1 comment:

dlh said...

For more context on the 1936 Welles production and other subsequent revivals, see the recent essay collection "Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance":