The set-up: In Stark Naked Theatre Company's season finale, Macbeth, real-life couple and co-directors Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin tackle Shakespeare's most murderous, married tag-team. I'm not sure who wins.
The execution: Any staging of Shakespeare is required viewing, if only to experience his glorious language in action. Reading the Bard is no substitute for watching talented performers put him across with masterful flair and conviction. Knotty phrases which can seem so impenetrable on the page are rendered clear and clean when Stark Naked's ensemble sinks their skills into them. The Jacobean dust of centuries past is blown away, and Shakespeare is brought smack into our life, vivid and immediate. The joy can be delirious.
"Can be" is the rub. Check out our interview with Philip Lehl, Kim Tobin and David Matranga.
There are also times when dear Shakespeare should be left alone, his directions followed and not made hash of. The world's mightiest playwright doesn't need addenda, theatrical flourish, or extraneous business. It's all there on the page, complete, waiting for life.
Full of prophecies, black magic, and buckets of blood, Macbeth has plenty of life. It seethes with it. Adroitly concise and condensed, the play gallops across the stage with a breathless tale of ambitious Macbeth and his just-as-ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, whose gruesome rampage toward the throne of Scotland leaves an epic wake of slaughter. But the price of evil is what the conscious-stricken Thane describes so juicily as "full of scorpions is my mind." Once husband and wife start their wicked journey, the blood lust is insatiable and inevitably leads to madness and destruction.
Shakespeare wisely sets the play spinning with the appearance of three witches on the heath, all spooky and strange as they await Macbeth. They talk gibberish of "hurlyburly" and "fair is foul and foul is fair." The scene is lightning quick, over before it begins, but it places us immediately in this weird netherworld that is just as real as thrones and crowns.
How does respected director Kevin Holden begin? With Lady Macbeth leisurely soaking in her bathtub. High up on designer Jodi Bobrovsky's corrugated staircase, she reads a book, sips some wine, pours more bath oil, while her leg languorously drapes over the side of the rounded marble bath. It's certainly an arresting image as we enter the theater, but oddly comic and slightly bizarre, too. What does it mean to Macbeth? Nothing, really. As quick, the lights go red and there's a violent rush of "Macbeth 101," as the entire plot is telescoped for us in dumbshow, with bodies dispatched, soldiers running about with knives drawn, and crowns swapped. It's busy, noisy, and completely unnecessary.
When the play proper begins, we're still stuck with that image of Lady Macbeth lounging in her tub. It takes a while for that to fade. I don't think Tobin fully recovers, either. In her first formal appearance, the famous "letter scene," she reads Macbeth's report of the witches and their prophecy, the news of which sets her mind twirling to murderous deeds. It falls flat. Where's the bubbling evil within her, spurring her on to spur on her husband? You never get the impression of great malignancy beneath the surface, the "false face" hiding what the "false heart must know." She's strangely absent, not a quality associated with Tobin, one of Houston's most accomplished actors. Later, she gets physical with her husband, literally pushing him into murder, but we don't believe it. She seems most alive in the "sleepwalking scene," where her chill is frightening and Tobin's power undiminished.
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Lehl is constantly alive. You can see him thinking, pondering, weighing the wickedness of his deeds, and later being crushed under his very bad decisions. He speaks Shakespeare as easily as breathing, making each thought thoroughly visible and clear. Macbeth's famed soliloquies are master classes of passionate precision. His Macbeth is brought low through his own shortfalls, but we understand how it could happen to any of us. Lehl makes us understand. Most of the cast rises to his level, with outstanding work by Matt Hune, as untested virginal Malcolm; David Matranga, as vengeful Macduff; Jeff McMorrough, as good-old-boy Banquo; and silky-voiced Jack Dunlop, as Macbeth's first victim, King Duncan.
The witches (Susan Draper, Amy Buchanan, and Regina Ohashi) whisper their prophecies with creepy glee, but where, oh where, is the weird sisters' most famous scene, Macbeth's most famous scene? Why has the cauldron with its "double, double, toil and trouble" and "eye of newt" vanished? Director Holden has some explaining to do.
Yet Holden propels Shakespeare's most single-minded play inexorably forward. The medieval world is neatly overlaid with such contemporary touches as suits for the men and camouflage for the soldiers. When Macbeth calls for his armor, it's a Kevlar vest. It's a slick fit, with Michael Mullins' soundscape of reverberating heartbeats and whoosing cawls adding to the supernatural aura, as does David Gipson's spectral and eerie lighting. The verdict: Macbeth was Shakespeare's most admired play during his lifetime, and a smash hit with Scotsman King James, who was Shakespeare's royal patron. Full-blooded, to say the least, it's a damned good show, and even with some stumbling, Stark Naked makes the most of it.
Shakespeare's whirlwind of magic and evil runs through June 22 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at starknakedtheatre.com or call 832-866-6514. $10-$20.