Review: “Macbeth” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

Review: “Macbeth” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

John P. McCarthy

  • OnStage NY/CT Critic

Garrison, NY – Shakespeare was certainly familiar with single-sex casts. Men and teenage boys played every part on Elizabethan stages up until 1660. Nowadays, all-female casts are a fairly common way directors try to scramble the dynamics and boost the relevance of his plays. Phyllidia Lloyd’s all-female production of “Taming of the Shrew,” currently at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is a fascinating example and a must-see for numerous reasons, not least being the chance to watch the great Janet McTeer limn Petruchio.

When “Macbeth” opened last Friday night at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, it was remarkable how much the stormy atmosphere and dark incantations of the first scene contrasted with the majestically balmy weather and the giddy mood of audience members, most of whom were picnicking on Boscobel House’s beautiful lawns minutes before entering the tented performance space. Still, it wasn’t necessary to douse one’s imagination in Rose to see beyond the actual meteorological conditions and serenely pastoral setting and conclude that the bluffs overlooking the mighty Hudson were ideal stand-ins for the Scottish highlands. 

As for acclimating to the fact that an all-female cast performs the tragedy, encountering the witches at the outset is helpful. No, the problematic feature of this production isn’t the single-sex cast or the climate, topography or relaxed vibe of the venue. It’s the decision to mount the play using only a three-person ensemble. It’s the number of actors, not their gender--and definitely not the abilities of Maria-Christina Oliveras, Nance Williamson, and Stacey Yen--that holds this “Macbeth” back. 

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The underlying concept is traceable to the idea of a female chorus, which is partly the role served by the three witches, “the wayward sisters”. In her Director’s Note, Lee Sunday Evans writes, “Women are often outside the cycle of violence.” While “capable of violence” they “are more often witnesses to it” because they are less likely to be in positions of power. They tend to be the victims of violence or the ones left behind to deal with its aftermath and therefore in a position to observe and comment on events. 

Setting aside the validity of this proposition, hinging a production of the Scottish play on it seems somewhat counterintuitive. No doubt the witches are outsiders, but they are more than mere spectators, wrinkled chorines; they are catalysts of the action via their prophecies and encounters with Macbeth. Even more strikingly, the character of Lady Macbeth belies the notion that women are typically bystanders and rarely authors of violence. 

Evans might argue that “Macbeth” offers exceptions that prove the rule and thus lends itself to unisex casting. If so, her further claim that women gain a special understanding by primarily functioning as witness and chronicler is crucial. In fact, it’s the key to deciding whether her version works. According to her hypothesis, the female perspective, one step removed from the action, gives women deeper insight into the “violent pursuit of power” than those who seek it, i.e., men. The point is not that gender distinctions are fluid or mutable and so don’t matter. Just the opposite. Having females embody male characters and utter their lines should yield unique wisdom about the mayhem that springs from unbridled ambition. 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine whether or not that occurs. First off, it’s asking a lot since it should entail close readings of the text and detailed comparative analysis with other performances. Second, it’s not easy to embark on that interpretive process when, initially at least, you spend so much effort sussing out who is who and keeping up with the story. That’s not to say the company doesn’t do a decent job of guiding the audience. The ensemble members often, but not always, announce the name of the major character or utter a stage direction in unison—for example, “Enter Banquo.”  And remembering, or apprehending for the first time, the broad outlines of the plot doesn’t take too long. But comprehension isn’t the main casualty. 

The chief drawback with this production is that doesn’t engage or involve the audience as much as it ought due to its scale. By having three actresses perform all the parts, the play feels severely pared down, almost shrunken and borderline muddled. Already Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, this “Macbeth” seems rushed and condensed, like its only hitting the highlights of the play. This has the virtue of expediency—the running time, including intermission, is a mere two hours—but it makes it harder for audience members to become engrossed emotionally, to appreciate the poetry, and to interpret and analyze. In the production’s defense, the majority of the killing happens off-stage, so the seeming dearth of incident and spectacle is organic to a degree. Yet the staging doesn’t have enough energy or provide a big enough visceral impact to compensate for the rather shapeless narrative. 

Now the good news. All this pertains to the first half of the play more than to the second. In other words, it gets better and finishes strong. Prior to intermission, the blocking is mechanical and the movements are formalized; the actors appear confined and restricted, perhaps to illustrate the idea of woman as having no choice but to remain still and bear witness. But if they are stuck at one remove from the action, then the audience is pushed even further away. And at two removes, we feel shut out. Not until the second half when the emotional fallout of the Macbeth’s brutality is dramatized do things loosen up. The actors do their best work and the play demands your full attention. Oliveras gives the character of Macbeth a modern, colloquial sense of humor that works surprisingly well. Yen is aptly conniving and then believably deranged as Lady Macbeth. And Williamson communicates Macduff’s grief and anger with a graceful fierceness that is absolutely riveting.  

The production has other virtues. Since the performers often break into song, it highlights how integral singing and music are to “Macbeth”. And one can’t deny that the basic device gives certain themes and particular lines greater, often ironic meaning. “Unsex me here!”; Lady M’s interrogation of her husband’s manhood (“Are you a man?”); and the prophecy concerning Macbeth’s capitulation to one not “born of woman” are three examples.  

On the technical side, sound and lighting are relied upon to help delineate the action and designers Eric Southern and Stowe Nelson are up to the challenge. By placing six light strips on stools at the back of the tent, Southern accentuates the artificiality of the proceedings and the impression that everyone’s identity is being cross-examined, audience members included; and the use of a portable spot at the end of the play is quite brilliant. Nelson has created precise, evocative sound effects that sometimes serve as de facto scene changes and frequently denote essential comings and goings. 

In general, Evans and HVSF deserve credit for presenting an interpretation of the play that dares to be intimate and small-scale. It whets the appetite for seeing the tragedy performed by a full compliment of female actors. A bigger production would stand a better chance of achieving Evans’ goal of a “communal reckoning with the devastation and destruction in the story of Macbeth”. As they are deployed here, three actors, no matter how talented, cannot bring about the inter-subjective moment of clarification she seeks. 

To paraphrase Lady Macbeth, both the concept and the attempt to execute it are confounding. One unfortunate result is that it risks further marginalizing the female perspective by feeding the stereotype that women are best suited to bemoaning the costs of violence and are ill-equipped to take steps that might prevent violence from happening in the first place.  

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Macbeth” runs through August 26, 2016 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY.

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