Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thursday Night in Carroll Gardens: Smith Street Stage presents "Macbeth" in Carroll Park

Tonight we had the great pleasure of attending a first-rate production of Macbeth at Carroll Park, presented by Smith Street Stage, the troupe that brought us last year's terrific Romeo and Juliet in the same Carroll Gardens venue.

Directed by Jonathan Hopkins, this swift-moving, crafty and suspenseful interpretation of Shakespeare's Scottish play featured a small cast of first-rate actors in contemporary dress, accompanied by two excellent musicians. It was a pleasure to behold.

(Our quick trip to Carroll Gardens on the G train, incidentally, featured a Shakespeare appetizer: two actors performed this scene from Romeo and Juliet from Metropolitan Avenue to Bedford-Nostrand and then dashed off to the next car.) When we got out at Carroll Park, we were pleased to see a good-sized crowd, a lot bigger than the audience we saw Romeo and Juliet with last year; we were particularly impressed, as we were last weekend, how really little kids just sat transfixed and quietly paying attention to the onstage action.

In the background, the inevitable kids' playground noise eventually faded into the background as the action unfurled in front of and around the park's field house, we actually could hear every line of dialogue crisply, a tribute to the skillful actors and probably the lone benefit we know from the loss of the B-75 bus route up Smith Street.

Macbeth, for us, has always seemed the most problematic of Shakespeare's major tragedies; it resists the kind of devotion we have for Hamlet, King Lear or Othello, and this may be our own difficulty. Making the transition from premeditated murderer (with some qualms) to mad nihilist -- which to us is what the text calls for -- is hard for an actor to pull off successfully.

Ben Horner does a really good job at making the transition credible. His Macbeth seems slightly off mentally from his first appearance onstage; it's not going to take much to drive this Thane of Cawdor over the edge, much as he tries hard to present the appearance of a strong leader but who is "a walking shadow" from the start.

Throughout the play, usually when Macbeth is trying to be decisive or show leadership, Horner's voice kept cracking like a young adolescent boy whose voice is changing. He's not presented as a weak tool of Mary Cavett's devastatingly icy, Nancy-Reaganesque Lady Macbeth. They're both too out of control for that, but that seems to heighten, rather than detract from, the play's pathos.

The couple's intense sexual attraction and their deep codependence seem products of two delusional people who have never quite been in touch with reality and who are almost always on the brink of hysteria, whether it's fear or triumph they're facing together. They're not monsters; they're wrecks.

All that gives the play, as staged by director Jonathan Hopkins, who was terrific last year as both Romeo and Lady Capulet (yes), a forceful momentum and the thrill of watching a speeding vehicle come to its inevitable bloody disaster. The music, provided by Matthew Glogowski and Andrew Sell, effectively highlighted the action.

The supporting cast was superb, and it was good to see actors who were in last year's Carroll Park production, like Sam Rosenberg, who made for a stolid, slightly obtuse Banquo and a ghost so scary that his entrances caused the young woman next to me screamed (twice).

The actors playing the the three weird sisters each played at least three roles. Leal Vona, alternately hulking and determined, also played Ross and one of the two Murderers, the hired killers enlisted by Macbeth. Patrick Harvey was totally awesome as the Porter in a soliloquy that froze time for a moment; he also played the Doctor, the Captain, and one of the Murderers in a series of lightning-quick transformations.

The third of the prophesying witches, Beth Ann Leone (who made interesting choices last year as Juliet; she's the artistic director for the Smith Street Stage), also made a nervous gentlewoman and pulled off the adolescent mixture of brightness and self-involved distance of Fleance beautifully, reminding us of how she played Benvolio so effectively last summer.

An interesting aspect of this production for us was how we weren't sure that Scotland's ship of state was ever sailing smoothly, before or after the treacherous plotting. Timur Kocak as Duncan seemed less royal than plebeian, with a pedestrian lack of imagination and the air of an affable office bureaucrat. His grand gestures were somehow empty.

MacDuff (Gordon Tashjian) seemed earnest, with a clear sense of right and wrong and intent on revenge, but we got the feeling he could have easily become the usurper of the rightful throne that the man he ultimately kills had been.

Everyone in this play seemed slightly sinister. Malcolm (Jason Loughlin) appeared to be hiding just how cold and calculated he could be; the initial sympathy for him as the wronged son of a murdered father turns, on second thought, into a wariness as to whether he'll be much better at ruling Scotland than his immediate predecessors.

We're sure other people saw the play differently and probably found its moral stance less ambiguous than we did, but we loved the thoughtfulness that went into Macbeth and are just as sure that nearly everyone in the audience appreciated it as much as we did.

MacBeth is playing in Carroll Park from July 13-24 (except for next Monday, July 18) at 7 p.m. If you want to experience some terrific Shakespeare in the park without having to stand on line at dawn, just bring a blanket or chair (we just sit on the newspaper ourselves) and you'll enjoy yourself.

At the end of the Cold War, Frank Rich wrote, "Nice as it might be were Macbeth to go out of fashion, it never does. The Ceausescus may come and go like the Perons and the Marcoses and so many before them, but there are always successors waiting in the wings." It's a play that's always relevant; yesterday's Scotland could be today's South Sudan. We're grateful to everyone at Smith Street Stage (including those who supervised the thoughtfully chosen music, costumes and fights) for this illuminating production.

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