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Theater Review: The Gamm’s Modern Macbeth

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Scorpions of the mind: The Gamm's artistic director, Tony Estrella, as Macbeth.

You know this couple. They’re both killers in their own right, spurring each other on in their hungry quest for power. And then one actually kills someone, and all hell breaks loose. More bodies fall, and they are caught, finally, wrapped around each other like the seething, ravenous snakes they are.

The Macbeths? Sure. But I was thinking about Francis and Claire Underwood, the Shakespearian doppelgangers whose Machiavellian strides have ravished the small screen on the Netflix television series, House of Cards.

And while a TV show may not seem at first to be a flattering comparison to consider during The Gamm’s revival of the bloody tragedy, the resonance reveals, in fact, the most promising element of the production. And one, I think, that should be given even more room to run.

A very modern Macbeth

In the directorial hands of veteran Fred Sullivan, Jr., and featuring artistic director Tony Estrella in the title role, we meet a Macbeth who, with high-strung and high-velocity intelligence, seems to be more of the hallways of Washington than the blasted heath of war-torn Scotland. It’s an alluring idea—this Macbeth, who does in fact kill his way to nihilistic collapse by Act V, might be brought all the way to a psychoanalyzed, post-nuclear iteration. That when he says to himself that life is “…a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing,” he stands on the 2014 side of the collapse of meaning in life. Throw away your Ritalin. There is nothing left for any of us.

It’s important to note that Sullivan has set this Macbeth in a relatively modern context--the dress and milieu of WWI-era Scotland, complete with gas masks, bayonets, kilts, and Patrick Lynch's simple, evocative set of rusted, corrugated tin walls. This is an inspired choice; after all, this was the war that launched the modern age and its black disillusion. But Estrella, who never fails to demonstrate his own sharp and inquiring mind (which made him a breathtaking Hamlet in 2011), seems out of synch with the more traditional tone of the performances surrounding him.

Richard Donelly is a grizzled and compassionate Duncan, the king who names his son, Malcolm, as his heir and sets Macbeth on a murderous quest to claim the crown that has been prophesied to be his by the play’s famously weird sisters. Steve Kidd is a stalwart, manly Macduff, who receives the tragic news of the savage slaying of his wife and children with a slow, agonizing drop to his knees and whose brief collapse into tenderness is beautifully and believably done. Wendy Overly’s weird sister is delightfully creepy without being too witchy, and Normand Beauregard puts in a resonant, resolute performance as Ross, who not only delivers the tragic news to Macduff but comments on the sickening collapse of his beloved country.

But Estrella’s Macbeth is significantly different from his countrymen. While their feet are of clay, his barely touch the floorboards. Estrella is all sinew, cracking with nervously anguished energy. His voice, already a solid tenor, is wound up tight in its upper range, and the notoriously difficult string of monologues wherein Macbeth argues with and against himself about whether to murder or not, come spitting out of Estrella as though he’s instructing us on his damnable situation. A more traditional Macbeth almost stumbles through the twists and double-backs of these monologues, confused by his own ambivalence. Estrella rams through the contradictions like a keyed-up lecturer at a military college. Macbeth’s the smartest guy in the room (or at least he thinks he is), and that seems to be part of what drives him crazy. Not even his wife can keep up with him, and their separation as Macbeth isolates himself to plot even more murders, feels less like he’s protecting her and more like she’s just fallen too far behind.

This is another place where a disconnect in pace and attack is perhaps too large. Jeanine Kane’s Lady Macbeth feels not-yet-defined against Estrella’s brittle neuroses. She’s a bit domestic, a bit sexy, a bit witchy, a bit commanding, but never enough of anything to act decisively on her husband and then be repelled by his later choices. I keep thinking of the terrifying stillness of Robin Wright on House of Cards, and how her partner to Kevin Spacey’s relentlessly plotting, hubris-soaked husband remains a fascinating and believable paradox of catalyst and antagonist.

What if Kane committed to being as cerebral as her husband? What if the cast was toned down in volume and color, so that the ruthless Macbeths could talk their way in and out of machinations, mayhem and murder, against a backdrop of stolid normalcy? What would emerge? I’d argue that a brilliant and wholly new Macbeth, utterly real and fascinatingly watchable, would emerge from the seeds of Estrella’s invention.

And I know I’d turn off my TV and come back for more.

Macbeth runs through April 13th at the Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St, Pawtucket. Tickets are $38 and $48. Discounts for subscribers, groups of 10 or more, seniors and students. For tickets call 401-723-4266 or go to gammtheatre.org.


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