Tragic ‘Macbeth,’ reborn, is not to be missed

Sometimes, if you are lucky enough, amidst a life spent watching plays, you can see a classic work anew, as if for the very first time. Such is very much the case with The Gamm Theatre’s current production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Director Fred Sullivan Jr., actors Tony Estrella and Jeanine Kane, as well as the entire cast make the text and verse so absolutely crystal clear that it is as if we not only witness but also inhabit the inner lives of these characters as they plummet down the primrose path of their tragedy. This is sheer brilliance; this must not be missed.
Director Fred Sullivan Jr. achieves all this by means of deceptively simple but essential stagecraft and an insistence that the authority of Shakespeare’s language comes first and foremost; thoughts here very clearly become words and words vividly beget actions and inactions and these ‘daggers of the mind’ are quite viable and cutting.
Moreover in his capable hands timeless sorrow becomes subtle ecstasy. This tragedy still thrills but realizes well that the horrors that we internalize are the most hellish of all and in the midst of his stark staging what we ultimately witness is nothing more or less than vivid scenes proceeding from Macbeth’s own ambitious and heat-oppressed brain.
What Mr. Sullivan has created is a “Macbeth” as a ritual of self-destruction that formalizes the vicious circle of personal tragedy. The horrific is applied judiciously here, just quite enough to thrill or appall and make the point before moving on.
The stark wooden box that comprises the thrust stage of Patrick Lynch’s utilitarian and minimalist set could have been at home at the old Globe, or it could be an altar. The wisps of smoke that waft through the slats of this box stage will evoke Scottish mist as well as fumes from the furnaces of Hell. Projections are utilized on occasion and sudden sharp flashes of strobe lighting and sound depict thunder, lightening and rain. All this is used sparingly though, as accents to the onstage actions and intentions; the play’s the thing and these effects never overwhelm the whole.
We initially encounter Macbeth and Banquo returning from battle dressed in WWI Uniforms and the subtly detailed costumes by Marilyn Salvatore are spot on, a reminder throughout that we are in Scotland in an era when all of Europe was embroiled in a ceaseless cycle of bloody conflict. Here too we meet the three Witches who have seemingly risen from the trenches in gas masks. These weird sisters are made all the more eerie by their brisk businesslike manner which establishes their amorality without laying it on too thick. Similarly, as the scene changes to the castle of Inverness, we see these witches seamlessly morph and insinuate themselves into the court. The idea that they have invested themselves into the action is established in our minds but that point is never belabored, we’re simply aware that evil comes when it is called.
Ingeniously, Director Sullivan has created a specific action for Lady Macbeth during her Act I Scene 5 speech which begins: “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” that I will not spoil here save to say that it is a startling innovation that I’ve never seen in any other production and one that is utterly supported by the text. That moment epitomizes this insightful and organic production, all that we see here emanates from Shakespeare’s story rather than imposing itself upon it.
Another hallmark of this great production is that due to these actors so thoroughly realizing the inherent meaning in Shakespeare’s verse, these words seem freshly minted in their astounding clarity. I often felt as if I were initially encountering a play that I though I knew so well. This deep investment into the language allows for specific points on arcs of the character’s journey to shine with white-hot light.
At the very center of the play, Act III Scene I, Macbeth states “to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus,” and this moment is emblematic of Tony Estrella’s masterful reading of the title role. At that instant we see immediately how ruled by the notion of ‘safety’ this tyrant is as well his inherent immaturity in the previous scenes; a boy who would be king, rapt with the possibility but deathly scared of the consequences and one who cannot rule himself. This is reinforced by our memory of him falling to his knees before his wife’s steely determination and hugging her like a lost child and in subsequent scenes in his peevish and petulant reaction to the fulfillment of certain prophesies. He’s nearly exasperated enough to stamp his feet and the irony here is that only what a boy dares, he dares.
This childishness though is coupled with a sense of earnest self-awareness that extends all the way down to his frailties. This, plus Estrella’s adept handling of the language makes his soliloquies palpably internalized for us; it is as if the actor has conjured up Macbeth’s own inner mindscape. We see, all too clearly, his fear, ambition and his own deep belief in the terrible nature of his bloody feats.
That twisted sense of courage that Lady Macbeth extols her husband to “screw to his sticking point” seems always to quietly emanate from every iota of Jeanine Kane’s aspect in the role. Hers is a steely and simmering portrayal of Lady Macbeth, complete with a genuine distaste of both “the milk of human kindness” and the fact that she herself must spur her husband on. During that banquet scene she’s capable of shooting her hallucinating partner a look that many an ill behaving husband at a dinner party has learned to fear. This all serves to heighten the anguish she expertly portrays in later scenes as she realizes that she knew not fully what she had done and she makes us feel acutely the price she has paid. Her command of the language too makes this heart-hearted woman absolutely heartfelt and breathtaking.
The entire acting ensemble is solid. Notably, Steve Kidd as Macduff is expert at portraying the sort of acerbic dryness one expects of a Scot in high office and his deadpan reaction to the Porter is the funniest part of that comic sequence. But when horrors come home to his roost the official façade drops and this actor here not only “feels it as a man,” he conveys to us the full sad depth of all his fatherly feelings.
Michael Forden Walker makes for a formidable and stoic Banquo, possessing a warriors’ countenance on the stage; a visage many a veteran soldier has of having seen too much coupled with the capability of holding it all in. This martial maturity he displays is a marvelous contrast to the rash and impetuous Macbeth.
Jordan Ahnquist’s portrayal of Malcom is vivid and thrilling, the entire gamut of honest emotions seem alive upon his features. Richard Donnelly is regality personified as Duncan and Norm Beauregard offers solid and heartfelt support as Ross.
Wendy Overly, Rachel Dulude and Alec Thibodeau make for three deft and devilish witches while nimbly juggling multiple roles, Ms. Overly brings sweet humor and natural maternal warmth to her portrayal of Lady Macduff.
The Gamm has a well-deserved reputation for presenting great productions of Shakespeare, and Director Fred Sullivan Jr. has the knack of knowing how to create upon the stage the very essence of the Bard’s intentions. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the tale of a self-inflicted doom but it is also a tragedy of the lust for power and the ceaseless cycle of bloody political strife. Watching “Macbeth” at The Gamm is to realize that Shakespeare knew full well that these revolutions are never ending and will continue tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

“Macbeth” at The Gamm Theatre, now through April 13, see listings for details.

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