The Big Chill

Shakespeare Theatre's opener 'Macbeth' turns a graceful and enigmatic tragedy cold and emotionless

by Jolene Munch
Published on September 9, 2004, 12:00am | Comments

There are but two exciting moments in Michael Kahn's latest production of Macbeth, a chilly, anemic season opener boasting glittery star power from Kelly McGillis and Patrick Page. Oddly enough, the two distinct scenes feature neither actor. The first is a sparkling comic passage by Shakespeare veteran Ted van Griethuysen as an eccentric porter playing in the shadows of his lantern. The other arrives in the second act -- Michelle Shupe's brief but whole appearance as Lady Macduff. These two very different people, a dallying doorman and a warm wife and mother, are the only indications of hot-blooded life flowing through Kahn's latest version of the Scottish Play.

Of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays, Macbeth easily marks his most gruesome and murderous bloodbath of a plot. Not only is it a work plagued by endless superstition and mythic curses, but its lusty tale of power, greed, madness and witchcraft is steeped in legends of black magic and pernicious prophecy ever since its opening night performance in 1606.


Macbeth, the noble Thane of Glamis and later pronounced Thane of Cawdor, seeks Duncan's title of King. The licentious, hungry Lady Macbeth seeks counsel from dark spirits to assure her husband's ascension to the throne, and devises a wicked, bloody plot that ultimately succeeds. Marred by their guilt and shameful corruption, the Macbeths spin a tangled web of deception and murder that will unravel their humanity and sanity during his scarlet reign. It's one of the bard's most graceful and enigmatic tragedies, and is often studied for its symbolic depths and illusions of simplicity. 

Between the couple's heated game of royal roulette and their varying levels of dementia, Macbeth is so tempered by passion and rage that its realm is a virtual inferno. So it makes no sense when what should be a gritty, dark affair plays out on a frozen white set adorned with a mysterious Plexiglas square.

John Coyne's fluorescent-lit grid stage sets an ultra-mod ambiance for what Kahn has imagined as early seventeenth century Scotland. Coyne's gradually raked floor serves as an uneven playing field on which Macbeth and company will tread upon throughout the evening's disasters. It's an icy, numb environment botched by distracting technical elements. In such a sterile, dispassionate setting, it's no wonder then why Kahn's hefty cast seems so cold and emotionless.

Not only is this Kahn's third time helming Macbeth, it is also Page's third experience in his mammoth role. Page is energetic and caustic when there is blood on his character's hands, but threadbare in humanity and even leaner when forced to realize his mortality.

Among a host of sedated performances and mindless recitations of text, Glenn Fleshler presents an earnest vision of Banquo, while van Griethuysen's Duncan is righteously regal and pompous.

Macbeth
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Kahn
To 10/24
The Shakespeare Theatre
450 Seventh St. NW
$12.75-$68
202-547-1122
www.shakespearetheatre.org

The most disappointing turn of the evening, however, is McGillis, whose Lady Macbeth is a lackluster, melodramatic willow. McGills brings nothing new to the cunning queen. As she snarls through her lines and purrs her crafty plans with a softness that is far from alluring, it is difficult to grasp how it is possible to witness a Lady Macbeth so bloodless and so bland.

Costume designer Linda Cho remains true to the stark, stoic quality of Kahn's production, piecing together black and white ensembles and a brilliant pair of lavish adornments for the coronation ceremony and banquet. Her newly appointed King and Queen look as through they were inspired by chess figures in festive wine-colored garments fit for the highest echelon of royalty. And Martin Desjardins' original music and sound cues are the only foreboding elements in what is otherwise a predictable night of dramatic actions with less than dramatic adaptation.

Page manages to build to his grueling climax with vigorous punch, but it is still only mildly affecting since the preceding storyline is delivered through a montage of speeches lacking inspiration or weighty tension. Ultimately, the only "wyrd" visions the audience is privy to are those of a group of actors carrying on through the frosty carnage under a heavy, heavy dose of anesthesia.