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Power couple: Mary Jane Hanson (top) with Stickney in Macbeth.

Cackle and Caw

By James Yeara

Macbeth

By William Shakespeare, directed by Elizabeth Swain

New York State Theatre Institute, through Feb. 13

‘Confusion has now made his masterpiece!”—Macduff

Director Elizabeth Swain begins her Macbeth fantastically: A leaf-gobo- dappled stage greets the audience, and then all goes to black, accompanied by Will Severin’s ominously eerie electronic music redolent of several fantasy films (300, Jason and the Argonauts). Suddenly a spotlight from above hits what appear to be piles of dead leaves center stage, while a white light glows from beneath them. Soon the dead brown piles move with the music, an arm emerges, then another, and the most famous opening lines of the “cursed” play are spoken: “When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

New York State Theatre Institute’s production of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is what NYSTI does best: present accessible literature to a broad audience in the most comfortable way possible. The fantastic costumes by Robert Anton are a mix of the very model of a modern military (black boots, black cargo pants and shirts or coveralls and vests) and medieval (purple capes and gold crowns, colorful on-shoulder swaths of cloth, bucklers and broadswords). Anton’s set consists of twin curved staircases, recycled from NYSTI’s past productions of The Lark and Magna Carta, rising to a platform up center, the stage ringed by two-story stone walls.

The premise of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is familiar to New York state 10th graders who have at least read the CliffsNotes: Macbeth follows his ambition to kill his king, Duncan, and rule Scotland in his place, encouraged in his pursuits by his Lady Macbeth and the three “Weird Sisters” who equivocate Macbeth into a bloody, short reign of terror. That the historical Macbeth is not the betrayer and butcher of Shakespeare’s Jacobean propaganda matters little; the play’s the thing, and Timothy D. Stickney makes for the ideal butcher-king here. Surrounded by familiar NYSTI faces and voices, each out- gesticulating and out-shouting each other, the dreadlocked Stickney is an imposing figure, dashing about the clear half-arc downstage of the twin staircases, following the toplighting during the imaginary-dagger-of-the-mind soliloquy as if the meandering toplight were an escaped Tinkerbell, which conveniently turns red when Macbeth’s thoughts turn bloody. Equally fantastical is Macbeth staring wide-eyed at the empty banquet-hall bench where he alone sees Banquo’s ghost, here absent save for some eerie yellow “haunted house” top light that comes and goes.

Swain’s production is full of such fantastical touches: After the magnificent opening, the witches soon take on the familiar cackle of Snow White’s stepmother; King Duncan seems to be so struck with fairy-tale palsy enfeeblement and old age that his halting steps would be halted forever if the Macbeths had just given a sudden loud “boo” instead of resorting to the superfluous gore of the daggers; the adding of cat calls, owl hoots, and raven caws are the aural equivalent of PowerPoint bullets to the words, and add to the “Agatha Christie meets Walt Disney in Chamber of Horrors” tone here; and the frenzy of what the folks at Shakespeare and Company call “the Richard Burton-Stratford shout” makes the very air of the Schacht Fine Arts Center echo with sibilance.

There’s a nice turn by NYSTI stalwart John Romeo as the bawdy Porter, who actually sneaks in one of the few bawdy gestures ever seen in a NYSTI production during the Porter’s speech on the equivocating effects of drinks. Some performers are recycled in multiple roles, while others are mere walking shadows, and the production as a whole seems unexplored and underused, as if it weren’t just the audience that needed the PowerPoint bullets of the lights and caws. This might make for a nice introduction to Shakespeare, but after 2 hours and 30 minutes, you won’t long for the crows to screech any longer.

 


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