Sunday, October 26, 2014

'So fair and foul a day': EclecticPond presents 'Macbeth'

Don't let your mental focus on the hackneyed hags of legend tempt you to think of EclecticPond Theatre Company's "Macbeth" as the ideal classic play for the Halloween season.

The piously clothed "weird sisters" impart  dark secrets in 'Macbeth.'
With four more performances (all of them after the holiday) at Irvington United Methodist Church, this production's witches are identified visually with their most common epithet in Shakespeare's Scottish play — "the weird sisters" — and so here they are nuns (a decision fully explained in the program). They're working both sides of the sacred-secular divide, in a sense. But then, "Macbeth" is a tragedy full of unsettling contrasts — with willed ambition shading into fated prophecy, political legitimacy fading across the borderline into bloody usurpation.

Directed by Catherine Cardwell in modern dress (1950s, to be precise), the play bristles with a bellicose atmosphere  visually conveyed by men in military uniforms that seem a bit dressy for combat. Nonetheless, the visual juxtaposition  of civilian and military ways of life helps reinforce the play's theme that survival in peace cannot be assured whenever there's disorder in the state.

This production's  setting has the extra advantage of using the era's pop songs for ironic commentary: A snatch of  "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake" surfaces between scenes around the time King Duncan suddenly decides upon a post-battle visit to Dunsinane, from which he will never stir after his doomed sleep in the guest bedroom ("Mr. Sandman").  Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth's mutual devotion is represented by "Tonight You Belong to Me," her death-dealing resolve by "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane." And, of course, the production's signature song has to be "Mack the Knife."

On the margins, such hints of dark frivolity are quite acceptable, but I wish any humor in the play itself had been confined to the drunken Porter answering knocks at the gate. Munching crackers, Kate Homan commanded the scene so completely that at first I took one audience member's guffaws as a misguided director's touch, as if to shout: "This is the famous comic relief right here, folks!"

But putting a comic spin on Macbeth's conferences with the men he's hired to kill Banquo doesn't make sense: Macbeth spurs them to accept the assignment based on the deep grievances they have against the intended victim. They are dead-serious brutes, not among the Bard's clowns.

Otherwise, the tone of the production is strikingly apt. On Saturday night, the verse was for the most part feelingly enunciated and happily without that sing-songy quality that can easily burden Shakespeare performance. True, hand gestures were sometimes relied on excessively to convey meaning, giving too many flourishes to Matt Anderson's earnest performance as the beloved King Duncan, for example. Even such a vocally and dramatically secure performance as Thomas Cardwell's in the title role was marred by arm-waving and pointed forefingers.

It's often been said that what you need to put Shakespeare across is all in the text; gesturing beyond what a character is likely to do in expressing himself works against the force of the words. But voice and posture have to be brought into play, too. In Malcolm's lengthy conversation with Macduff, in which the prince tests Macduff's loyalty by feigning unfitness to rule, the chess-game staging could only go so far in enlivening the scene. Once Macduff has passed the test (by saying he wants no part in defending a reprobate ruler), Malcolm reveals his true self. Despite the energy and focus of David Marlowe's performance, I didn't sense the sharp contrast between Malcolm's phony self-portrait and his genuine self-presentation moments later.

Macbeth (Thomas Cardwell) and his wife (Elysia Rohn) plot their course.
Cardwell  solidified his hold on Macbeth with two early soliloquies — one focused on Duncan, the other on Banquo.  Each demonstrated the ambitious nobleman's wrestling with dire thoughts he can't suppress and their seeming endorsement by the weird sisters' prophecies. With his murderous deliberations highlighted by Lady Macbeth's urging, Cardwell's Macbeth traced the thane's growing conviction that destiny must be served beyond the strictures of conscience.

Elysia Rohn's  Lady Macbeth was a statuesque figure, imperious and yet loving toward her wavering husband and unshaken by any pangs of conscience. Especially effective was Rohn's restraint during the "unsex me here" speech. She avoided a ranting tone calculated to send chills up our spines, opting instead for a cold, eerie steadiness of purpose.

Zachariah Stonerock presented a thoughtful Banquo, brave and insightfully anxious about what he and Macbeth have been told by the weird sisters.  His performance maintained its stature right through the banquet scene, aided by spectral lighting, as Banquo attends by apparition, unnerving the host and sending the social occasion into chaos. Presenting the banquet at a picnic table, with Macbeth manning the charcoal grill and thus having a reason to be away from the table when Banquo's ghost takes his seat, was among the director's inspired innovations.

The unraveling of the social fabric under Macbeth's tyrannical rule was pointed up effectively by the performances of Homan as Lady Macduff and  Bradford Reilly as her husband, especially after he learns of the slaughter of his family.

Best of all as a collective achievement was the company's energy and the accelerated pacing of the play's climax. In combat and confusion alike, everything swept toward the inevitable downfall of the tragic hero, wringing our hearts in Cardwell's performance. His is a Macbeth who, like so many sensitive people presented with grim opportunity, is a warrior incapable of finding inner peace once he allows himself to follow his dark star.