Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What bloody magician is this?

In Washington, D.C. for spring break, we were astounded by an unforgettable performance of Macbeth at the Folger Theatre. This production is now officially over, so I can write about the magic without ruining anything for anybody. Co-directed Aaron Posner and Teller (the small silent half of Penn and Teller, stage magicians and hosts of the Showtime series, Bullshit), this Macbeth made full authentic use of Teller's craft as magician without ever giving the audience the sense of "oh this is all gimmick" without substance.

At the top of the show, the house manager appeared to read a statement on the use of special effects in this production. As she read from her paper, two actors casually approached from each side and once upon her, stabbed her through the back so that the sword came right through her paper, gushing spurts of blood and then -- blackout! Let the violence and bloodshed begin!

An enormous loud and physical battle ensued with thrilling stage combat lead us into the opening speech, "What bloody man is this...?" Upstage, a percussionist provided an underscore of "sound and fury" as needed. The setting was spare and prison-like. The costumes were evocative but not replicas of medieval thanes and Scottish soldiers, not quite so obviously adapted from modern clothing.

I can't count all the times I've seen Macbeth, I've directed a kid version and played First Witch back in college days. The acting and the directing in this production were revelatory. I heard lines and understood scenes in ways I had never considered. There were times that the words startled me so that I wanted to reach for the script to marvel at the interpretation I'd just witnessed.

And then there was Teller's magic. In press releases and interviews, he has discussed the legacy he received from his grandfather, a complete works of Shakespeare that immediately fascinated him, especially the play Macbeth. He has thought about this production for decades -- an admirable approach to creating a work of theatrical art! The magic emerged with the story and the words in ways I'm sure Shakespeare would have delighted in as would his audiences at the Globe.

The play is full of opportunities for mis-direction, levitation, and astonishing appearances. At one point, a witch is grabbed as she tries to exit, and is stabbed through the clothing. The clothing falls to the floor -- the body within vanished! The dagger Macbeth sees, levitates inside a mirror, twisting,turning and luring Macbeth on to his bloody deed. Banquo's apparition appears so convincingly and suddenly, we think we are wise to how it happened, but when he reappears again, we are completely fooled again.

Teller's blog gives details from behind the scenes, of rehearsals and the process. You can find it here. Evidently the composition of the blood was not easy to formulate. They wanted something that was not realistic yet startling in its redness. Certainly I have never seen a bloodier nightgown than in this version's sleep walking scene.

Merrill Peakes and Kate Eastwood Norris gave strong and believable not to mention earthy performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The witches were played by men, which was my only real quibble. There are so few women's roles in most Shakespeare plays I hate to see them cut out of the wonderfully weird three sisters parts. I'll give the the male actors their due -- they were riveting. They chose to chant the "double double toil and trouble" speeches in a very dynamic rapid rhythm which was very effective. An image of these witches is shown above, borrowed from the Folger's web page. If you love Shakespeare, the Folger Library is THE place for scholarly research not only in this country but around the world.

The Folger theatre is an intimate 250 seat space built to resemble an Elizabethan Inn courtyard where outdoor performances were played on platforms at one end of the courtyard, with balconies and surrounding ground space used for the audience. Richly timbered with oak, the Folger is an evocative yet adaptive playing field for Shakespeare, Sheridan and other classic playwrights. Next season it will feature two Shakespeare plays plus Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. If Macbeth is representative of what the Folger gives to its audiences, it would be well worth it to buy a season ticket and make plans to take some train rides down for the shows.

No comments: