Mac-ro Mess

Brandishing sabers, leaping down flights of stairs and dripping pots of gooey stage blood, this cast of Macbeth struggles to bring to life one of Shakespeare's most demanding tragedies. Unfortunately the play -- full of live-action fight scenes, big ghost-ridden banquets and multiple onstage murders -- is too big to be contained by little Actors Theatre on South Boulevard.

Not that director Pavel Douglas hasn't tried his best to compensate for the diminutive space. Sheets of black plastic cover the walls. A high platform of acting space, built from webbed iron, juts out above the stage; we can watch the action that goes on up there from underneath. And sound designer Manny Elias has created a tape full of eerie echoing noises and techno sounds that stir up lots of energy. But none of this sleight of hand can make the tiny theater big enough for all the Sturm und Drang of the evil Macbeth's gory rise to power.

Moving the play into the present, Douglas has envisioned the opening speech (establishing Macbeth's past heroic deeds) as an on-camera exchange between a combat reporter and a bloody soldier (Tim Davis). He wheezes out a war story as the camera lights shine. In the distance the battle rages; overhead a helicopter hovers. We know this because we can hear it all roaring from the theater's speakers. As movielike as this tornado of sound might be, the net result is that Shakespeare's monologue is lost in the blast of explosions and roar of chopper blades.

The same thing happens just moments later when the Bard's infamous witches (the ones who chant the memorable "double double toil and trouble") entice the seemingly noble Macbeth into some very bad behavior. We can see they're up to no good. Tricked out like trailer-park goddesses, in green reptilian body suits, glistening cat's-eye makeup and bed-head hair, they snake out their red tongues as they ooze up to Macbeth (George Brock). Yes, these girls (Shannon Eagle, Felicidi Scott, Courtney Webb) certainly do look like trouble with a capital T. But it's impossible to know what kind, because everything they say has been filtered through B-movie-style electronic reverb and comes out as a mush of meaningless echoing noise.

In fact, the whole production has a sort of B-movie feel to it. Lots of fist-pounding emotion whips around; little of it feels real. The actors literally spit out their lines (avoid the front row if at all possible) through clenched jaws, but at no time do they seem to feel or believe what they are saying.

Granted, some of these Shakespearean moments are monumentally difficult, such as when the noble warrior MacDuff (Foster Davis) discovers that Macbeth has murdered his family. Davis has proved himself to be enormously charming and vital in past productions at Actors Theatre, but in this extraordinary scene, the talented actor seems utterly lost. He pounds his head with his fists, he roars his lines like a wounded lion and backs himself into a corner to clutch at his belly, but all of this just comes off as painfully hollow histrionics. The same is often true for Brock as Macbeth. Wearing a Noriega-style beret, he struts across the stage like some badass drug lord out for blood. Each time he schemes up another murder, he whips out what appears to be his favorite prop: a big silver Zippo lighter that he flips open with all sorts of deadly intentions as his eyes slide across the audience. The gesture is so over-the-top it borders on camp.

Only Kate Revnell-Smith, as the ponderous Lady Macbeth, and Jim Jeter, as Seyton the clownish groundskeeper, manage to find something true in their roles. Revnell-Smith finds the heart of Lady Macbeth's descent into madness and carries it off with a regal, soft-spoken woundedness. And Jeter is very funny as the aging servant each time he hobbles across the stage all red-cheeked and full of curmudgeonly complaints. Too bad these two characters spend so little time on stage.

Instead, the night is filled with long battle-to-the-death stage fights (they test any modern audience's ability to suspend disbelief); silly, wiggly-bottomed sort-of-sexy witches and two hours of booming sound effects, none of which gets at the dark guts of Shakespeare's bloody tragedy.

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Lee Williams