Macbeth and Macbeth and Macbeth: Three Weird Macbeths

By S.E. Barcus

April 30, 2022

Part 1.  The Name’s MacFindley.  Macbeth MacFindley.

Part 2.  Fair Is Fargo, and Fargo Is Foul.

Part 3.  Macbeth – the multi-million-dollar art-world Chelsea installation.

Through the month of April, I had the chance to see and compare three Macbeths: a NYC live production with Daniel Craig; a film by one of the Coen brothers; and an immersive performance installation in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood.  They were all great, and yet different enough to make each one – even the third one experienced in just a month – still feel fresh.  It probably doesn’t hurt that the script is one of the greatest tragedies ever written.

Three Weird Macbeths

Part 1. The Name’s MacFindley.  Macbeth MacFindley.

Daniel Craig’s Shaggy-to-Murderer Dichotomy

By S.E. Barcus

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, at the Longacre Theatre

Previewed from March 29, Opened April 28, runs through July 10, 2022

Directed by Sam Gold

Starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga

On Wednesday, April 13 (oooo…!), I saw a preview of the new production of Macbeth, directed by Sam Gold at the Longacre Theatre.  Sorry for this review’s title.  Cheap reference to James Bond, I know.  But who can resist — folks (like me!) wanna see the stars live like they wanna see their favorite singers live, even if it means shelling out a buncha dough, sitting or standing uncomfortably sandwiched for hours betwixt a bunch of potentially-covid-infested public….  (Not a joke – the previews were cancelled April 1-11 due to some of the actors testing positive.) 

Christine Jones photo from the Macbeth official site.

On sitting down, the curtain is already drawn and the stage is bare, no illusions, appropriately desolate for this play.  The empty stage’s back wall stares at us with its pipes and whatnot.  Just a stage, just a lightbulb, a la Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt.  (Perhaps we should call it, ‘verfremdungsaBrecht’?)  This “set” is actually subtly genius, as it (spoiler alert!) physically blows the whole set budget at the very end just to complement one of the main themes of the play, that nothing is as it seems….   “False face must hide what the Scenic Designer, Christine Jones, doth know.”  ‘Props’ for that surprise ending.  Never seen anyone take a V-Effekt-set and then do the shim-sham with it.  (It’s just a stage – or is it?!  It’s like a … well …  a secret double agent….)

Stage right there are some chefs as we sit down, putting together a little amateur cooking class for us while we sit and wait for the show to start.  (They were really chopping and cooking something, but I couldn’t smell it.  Granted, hard to do so through the masks – were there even onions? Increase the heat, man!  Get that smellovision into effect!  …  Hey! – did they just pour some pre-made Thai-curry-to-go-looking thing in there! Cheaters!) 

Then the play starts.  Daniel Craig is there initially with the whole cast as no one in particular yet, just one of the army, spitting on the floor.  A man, presumably Thane of Condor, is then executed to disturbing music – and then our fair, innocent cooking-class chefs in jeans come over, grab some of the blood trickling down the cut throat, and … pour it into their foul soup!  Ah! They’re the witches, of course, who then begin the famous setting of the stage for us, where fair is foul, and foul is fair etc.  But why are the two techs also with them?  I mean, these techs move around all night with their spots and smoke machines, but they also “act” as if they’re witches, too, on the stage, at times (again, possibly a reverse of the alienation effect, where actors are supposed to be just like real-life people on the stage with no illusions.  These techs – who are supposed to be real-life stage-hands – at times, then, become ‘actors’…?   Ok.  Got it.   But now you have friggin five witches instead of the classic three?  I mean, Hecate’s not in the first scene…. Kinda confusing….)

Soon we are at the scene where Macbeth and Banquo confront the witches, where we finally get into Daniel Craig’s acting.  And you know what?  He was great.  Perhaps it was his years playing that spy, having to pretend you’re something that you’re not, that made him a good Macbeth, although he really only had two main emotional dynamics – humorously worried and threateningly murderous.

Daniel Craig photo from the Macbeth official site.

I admit I didn’t know what to expect from Daniel Craig the theater actor.  I think the most pleasant surprise is that he turns out to be bona fide funny. In this production – similar to his surprisingly pleasing Knives Out CSI:KFC-detective role – he shows a totally different side from his Bond role.  This famous hunky guy has a pleasing, goofy sense of humor!  (Weird to figure this out in a Macbeth lead!)  Although, again, it often goes disturbingly back and forth to an angry potentially violent man, like someone with a dissociative identity disorder.  Or a psychopath who only intermittently feels empathy out of nowhere for some reason.

He starts right away with a fairly evil ambitious take on the role, the way he presents the line, “The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies.” 
Let’s just say that he says the end of that line in a pretty creepy way.  But then he’s funny again, like the way he tells Banquo, re: the prophecy and witches, that “I think not of them,” in a way that could’ve been accompanied by a cartoonish guilt-filled whistling.  Or the way he changes his mind on the assassination, telling his wife “we will proceed no further in this business” with a Little Rascals’-like determined and humorous cross-armed ‘harumph’.

But then, suddenly he is creepy again, close to a possible wife-beater when he yells at Lady Macbeth’s pressing, to “Pray thee piece!”  Or when he follows the dagger (a tech on stage with a spot light) and does the deed, with a single stab that doesn’t quite kill the king, so then a harrowing series of stabs, over and over again. 

Then back to goofy again.  He comes back from the deed, freaked out, making use of the bare-staged-alienation-style by going to the offstage cast-and-crew refrigerator that is viewable to us all – grabbing a beer, plopping down on a chair, and “unwinding” from his ‘hard day at work,’ while his “Married With Children” Lady berates him for bringing back the daggers.  His “sleep no more” lines, and refusal to go back to the site of the murder, could just as easily have been told by Shaggy: “like, no way, man – you go back there!”  (Lady Macbeth should’ve offered him a Scooby snack.)

But then back to psychopath.  “I care not!” he yells at the taunting Lady Macbeth just moments later, again giving me the creeps that he’s likely an abusive husband.  Or when he decides to murder Banquo.  And soon after Macduff’s entire family.  This Macbeth can find the evil within and ride it.  But then hysterically scaredy-cat again!  Like with Banquo’s ghost, where, if Lady Macbeth could hold him, he’d probably jump up in her arms like Shaggy often does with Scooby.  (I once saw an ambitious Klingon-Macbeth, but they didn’t pull it off….  Has anyone ever done a Scooby-Doo-themed Macbeth?  Macbeth and Banquo like Shaggy and Scooby with the Witches?  …  DM me.  Lol.)  When Banquo’s ghost is finally gone and the psychosis/spell is broken, Craig’s line, “Oh, I’m a man, again,” has the timing of a good stand-up comic. 

OK, enough of Craig.  Needless to say, I personally loved his performance overall, if a bit emotionally limited, and perhaps at times not being 100% present.  (Oh – but for you who want the sexy – he can also deliver lines like, “How now you secret, black, and midnight hags,” in a quite a flirty way….)

Ruth Negga’s Lady Macbeth was very noble and refined when she was in public, gracious with big gestures.  Then very plotting and devious in private with Macbeth.  The serpent et al.  She, too, could grab her own laughs, with her take on lines like, “O, never shall sun that morrow see!” — which seemed to demand two snaps up after she said it.  Neither of these two actors are Scottish, but Negga’s Irish background and accent gave her the more realistic Celtic feel to the role.  (Of course, everyone else was speaking Amurkin, so it wasn’t really a “who’s more Celtic than who” sort of version of the play….)  However — on at least one of her laugh-lines, it was the set up by Craig that gave her the laugh. Craig: “we shall proceed no further with this business!” (harumph.)  Negga’s follow-up with, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” got a big laugh after this, but only because it was set up so well by Craig’s Shaggy-like hesitancy and cowardice.

Ruth Negga photo from the Macbeth official site.

Negga plays well the multitude of Lady Macbeth lines dealing with disturbing de-sexing language in a calm, rational manner — like a psychopath, with little feeling.  From worrying about the mother’s milk of human kindness, to wanting to “unsex me now”, to Macbeth hoping she’ll have nothings but males, to dashing the gummy baby’s brains out….  Eesh.  (I’m surprised, in this current era of dramatically and rapidly evolving gender identity politics, that none of the Macbeths I saw really did a “deep-dive” into Lady Macbeth’s and Shakespeare’s total-warfare attack on what it means to be a “woman”.  Even Lady Macduff gets into the action with her lines about “the womanly defense to say I have done no harm….”)  On her “make thick my blood”, we are definitely dealing with an ambitious Killing Eve-like Villanelle.  Her sleep-walking scene was amazing.  “Out! Damn spot!  Out I say!” was filled with such deep-throated exasperation.  Deep sorrowful mourning and moaning with her “what’s done cannot be undone.”  It made me downright uncomfortable … which means … great acting. 

Of the rest, I enjoyed Paul Lazar, a Wooster Group member and frequent performer with Classic Stage Company.  For our show, he really shined as the porter. The way he delivered his ‘knock knock knock!’ monologue – with his gestures – brought home the sexual inuendo better, and got more laughs, than anyone else I’ve ever seen do the part.

Michael Patrick Thornton photo from the Macbeth official site.

Also great was Michael Patrick Thornton. Disability advocates – who rightly often bemoan the fact that people with disabilities are arguably the last bastion of acceptable discrimination — will be ‘happy’ to note his inclusion despite – perhaps because of? – his wheelchair throughout the play.  (For how kinda over-the-top-P.C. Broadway can be, the righteous and conscious sense of inclusion – even more so than in “liberal Hollywood” — is overall very cool.  Broadway and New York City culture just has this honest Sesame Street, Free-To-Be-You-And-Me sort of quality to it, pushing America’s progressive culture every chance it gets.  Very cool.  … Cuz I mean, why the fuck wouldn’t you have an actor like Thornton in a major Broadway production?!  Just because of a stupid wheelchair?!)  The way Thornton creates Lennox, as he relates the death of the king — and the ‘guilt’ of his guards, with daggers which “unwiped we found upon their pillows” — is so hysterically deadpan, I thought he was Steven Wright for a sec. 

It did make me uncomfortable, though, that Craig – back in his evil mode – face-palmed Thornton and pushed him, thus rolling his wheel-chaired-self away from him, when he said, “take thy face hence” in Act 5.  It was a bullying sort of move that disability advocates probably hated – but was also completely realistic that the psychopath king would do such a thing…. But that it got a laugh — including from me — made me uncomfortable; felt guilty.  It shouldn’t have been funny, I think.

Banquo, played by Amber Gray, a woman, mixed it up a little with genders.  Interesting acting/directing choices, such as tapping her lower abdomen when talking about how her children would be kings in the future.

Finally, in our night, Understudy Peter Smith, stood out as well, but not in a good way.  As Malcolm, his acting was tired and affected, sounding more like Al Gore in South Park, wanting everyone to be “super super Cereal about that ManBearPig, Macbeth!”  They’re giving out free tickets to high school kids, according to Craig on Colbert.  Well … one of those kids literally shouted out “THIS IS BORING!” (with better projection and enunciation than Smith) during Smith’s long and tiresome monologue in Act 4 scene 3 (which to be fair, really should have been cut, as it was in the Coen film).  Maybe not a good idea, giving out those free tickets!  😊 

Director Sam Gold (geez what a movie-industry name!) was also initially going for Gore, although not the South Park type, more the “I’m gonna get all Coriolanus on his ass” type, from the beginning with the slit throat, to the pilot’s thumb being cut off on stage, all the way to the bloody fight scene at the end with Macbeth and Macduff.  The directing, overall, was odd.  Taking off from the V-Effekt set, the unifying direction seemed to want a combination of an alienation affect combined with nothing being as it seemed.  For example — the degree to which the chorus sounded amateur HAD to have been intentional.  After hearing of the “merciless Macdonald,” everyone yells, “Boo!,” trying to seem like a large army crying out, but it was as lackluster as a bunch of kids in a high school English class reading Shakespeare aloud.  (“This is boring!” one can hear in the “subtext” of that ‘boo’….  Holy crap!  The kid bad-mouthing the play — was he a plant!?  Gold’s a GENIUS!) Goodness help me, if this intermittent listlessness wasn’t somehow intentional, on BROADWAY….  Then.…   Wow. 

Sam Gold photo from the Macbeth official site.

Thus – intended or not – this was an uneven production – some of the actors (the stars) were amazing – while many of the lesser roles seemed like high school actors they brought up to Broadway for the night to ‘put on a show!’  Some folks had issues with all the double casting. It was definitiely confusing at times, but worth it. Theater is expensive, and things were understandable enough. But, I will say — what was with the very end, when one of the witches, Bobbi MacKenzie, sings with a beautiful voice, dishing out soup to all of the cast, and we just watch as they sit around eating it quietly, while she sings, for 3 minutes…?  But she was a witch – and that soup was foul – so it made the whole sweet ending seem as creepy and sardonic as the song “Still Alive” at the end of the game, “Portal”.  The song sounds like some Celtic folk song, with the chorus, “I wish I had known it wasn’t meant to be perfect.”  Is Gold fucking with us, or what?

Gaelynn Lea photo from the Macbeth official site.

The music, composed by Gaelynn Lea, was wonderfully disturbing (sometimes crashing on us at possibly above the legal limit of decibels at times, however?), punctuating the end of scenes here, coming in softly and menacingly within tense scenes there. Often the music just long held onto one menacing tone/chord, somewhat late-Hans-Zimmer style.  Other times more disturbing with her simple but loud violin riffs, Laurie Anderson style, and loud drumming accompaniment, or gongs or rock cymbals, at times something like Tom Waits’ Black Rider.  My favorite – although it made me deaf – was the “owl that shrieked” during the king’s murder, a seriously ear-piercing steam engine whistle, distorted with Godzilla sound effects or some shit, like a Banshee out in the woods.  This shriek returns during the murder of Banquo.  Often with a frenetically tremulous violin, a sorrowful cello, and background thunder and rain always seeming to aurally color the stage.  I guess this is Lea’s Broadway debut.  Great job, totally fantastic.

Finally, I also enjoyed the lighting, designed by Jane Cox – from simple and barren with just a light bulb to suddenly harsh, with disturbing sharp blue blinding lights from above that at times turned to the audience like an arena rock show’s special effects.  There is a stylistic synergy to the lights and the sound, and the overall production.  At times on stage, we’re in a high school show, REALLY verfremdungseffekting it, but then at other times suddenly totally living vicariously through someone else in a psychologically horrifying and evil world in an old-school Aristotelian manner.  Back and forth.  I gotta think Gold intended a lot of this?  But if so, it’s not clear, nor very effective, so does that matter?  This road to Macbeth might have been paved with good intentions.

I mean, but overall, it’s not hell — this production isn’t horrible.  Craig and Negga are great and fun to experience.  And the play itself is still a classic, a tradition, to experience every few years, no matter what.  So, you could do a lot worse.  Again, the main titillating reason to see the play is for the stars.  (Tell me how many folks are seeing Macbeth on Broadway because of Shakespeare or Gold – and how many are seeing it to see Negga, and especially Craig?) Folks spend as much or more on their Radiohead, or Tyler, the Creator, or Billie Eilish, or Mitski tickets all the time.  It is mos def worth the price of the ticket to see Daniel Craig live, doing a wonderful job, for perhaps the only chance in your life.  Anything else you might happen to also enjoy that evening you should just consider cherries on the top.  And there are plenty of those, too, see above.

It’s interesting, actually.  There is a recent shift away from the ‘star system’ in Hollywood, with films not produced around stars as much, anymore, but rather focusing on directors or ‘cinematic universes’.  This Macbeth is a definite star-system-Broadway type of play.  But Broadway, too, seems to be shifting toward “universes”.  Disney musicals in their case (except sorry, Marvel, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark didn’t really go so well!), or the sad more recent trend of turning Hollywood movies into cheesy musicals.  When Hollywood doesn’t take risks, and only makes sequels, and Broadway doesn’t take risks, and only does musicals of rehashed Hollywood movies, we will soon learn why replicas of replicas and clones of clones get so degraded and broken and unhealthy over time…. So, more power to Daniel Craig for trying to get our butts in the seats for a Shakespeare play!  He doesn’t HAVE to do this.  You get the feeling he WANTS to do this.  I take it back – give the tickets out to those unruly high school kids.  It’s the whole point.  Go stars, go!  Do your thing!

Stars – do not hide your fires!

Copyright April 30, 2022

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Macbeth and Macbeth and Macbeth: Three Weird Macbeths

College of Charleston’s Macbeth, Review

1999 Archives

Well…. This will be a nice segue for what I’m about to write….

From the archives. College of Charleston sure had (hopefully still has) an awesome theater program.

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

College of Charleston’s Macbeth, Review

The Have Nots! Have Lots, Piccolo Spoleto Review

1999 Archives

MAN! Brandy, Tim, and Greg are still kicking it! They just performed this past Saturday, April 16th! Charleston is lucky to have such dedicated comedy and theater artists successfully bringing it to the Lowcountry. I have been to Second City in Chicago several times. I always had just as much fun with The Have Nots! Other cities Charleston’s size do NOT have this. Support it.

This was a review for Charleston City Paper back in 1999…. One wonders how the transexual idea thrown at them might be played differently today, if at all? Leave it to good comedians to know the room, and know how the larger culture evolves (and hopefully improves), and act appropriately — while always JUUUUST testing that line, that gray area, for safe-space questioning and cathartic release. Comedy. Stand-up and improv. Some of America’s greatest gifts to humanity…. And these guys do it very well.

(Oh, I really was there for the review — even though, duh, I guess I could have heard someone in the audience say, “Dominatrix” in that webcast….)

I see from their calendar that ‘their’ theater, Theatre 99, has not scheduled much yet during the huge local counterpart to Spoleto, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. (And I also see that Piccolo itself has yet to release their schedule — and won’t until May 18?!?!? … For a Festival that opens May 27?!?!? … WTF??!?!). Look out for a plethora of performances at Theatre 99 that 2 weeks, likely of high quality, if ‘archived’ history is any judge, when they brought in the likes of Spalding Gray to perform.

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

The Have Nots! Have Lots, Piccolo Spoleto Review

Review of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, at Footlight Players

1998 Archives

Continuing posts from the archives…. From October 14, 1998, a review of Footlight’s production of Scotland Road, by Jeffrey Hatcher. Look — more ghosts!

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook and Twitter, and has some silly videos on YouTube.

Review of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, at Footlight Players

Ghosts — The Play that Returned

By S.E.Barcus

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, April 1 – May 1, 2022

New Translation by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
Original Music Written and Performed by David Coulter

           The Seattle Rep brings back perhaps one of the most esteemed theater directors at “modernizing classics”, Carey Perloff. She was head of New York’s Classic Stage Company for years, and then ran San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater for another 15 years. She returns to Seattle (last here in 2018) as guest director to try and make the “father of realism,” Henrik Ibsen, and his Ghosts, relevant to us in 2022 — literally 140 years after it world premiered in Chicago in 1882 (which Seattle Rep audiences might recall, having seen the world premiere of the play about the play, in 2018…).

           Ohhhh, “Classics.”  How doth one modernize thee?

Photo by Sayed Alamy, from The Rep’s program. With David Strathairn, David Coulter, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Thom Sesma in rehearsal, 2022.

           This particular production premiered in 2019 at Williamstown Theatre Festival with Uma Thurman in the lead.  Big-wig Hollywood stars are one way to “modernize”, or at least make sexy and titillating, and we gots your Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn, here in Seattle, playing the free-thinking Helena Alving and the prudish Pastor Manders, respectively.  So…, check.

           Another way to bring us into the 21st century?  With a new, fresh translation.  This one, by Paul Walsh, promised us it would not feel so stuffy, like the original Victorian translation.  And I think he succeeded; the play does seem to have more of an American vernacular to it.  Although — Ibsen reportedly did not like the English translation of his title.  He would have preferred something closer to the Danish word (the lingua franca of Norway at the time), Gengangere, which is closer to “Revenants”, or “The Ones Who Return”, and would have had the triple entendre of meaning not only people who came back from the dead, such as ghosts, but also the return of memories and events, and perhaps even the return of living people who had left and come back, such as Helena’s “prodigal son,” Oswald Alving.  One wonders if Mr. Walsh was tempted to tamper with the well-known title itself, in his new translation, but backed off?

           Another way to try and modernize an older play?  A groovy, inspired set design, which Dane Laffrey does quite well.  It is complete with modern architecture, with great glass windows (reflecting the actors on stage as if they were … ghosts?  Aaaah!).  And the house had sod and grass on the roof, hipster-wheatgrass-juice-style, to give us that Scandinavian culture/feel.  But then other aspects of the production were more Victorian, from that remote era, such as the furniture (and costumes), all from at least a century ago.  The stacked-up furniture behind the glass was a constant reminder of a cluttered storage room, recalling and symbolizing the mementos / physical memories that most of us keep (at least, if we have not been subjected yet to Marie Kondo’s ‘joy’).

           But overall, none of the above quite drags this play out of the 1880s for me. It is all so much window dressing on a still very old, creaky house, with little actually updated inside of it.  And it’s the important stuff.  I’m not talking the electrical wiring, nor a nice, new updated kitchen, I’m talking about the words.  The language.  The play, itself.  Despite the modern American lingo, that old, stuffy morality still threatens to suffocate these characters and plot, and thus – knowing how it is relevant to modern politics, or not – still threatens to make this seem more of the dreaded “museum piece” to a modern audience.  (Showing that Schopenhauer’s idea — that nothing can be truly effectively translated from one language into another — might not actually be the case, as demonstrated in recent cog-sci news.)

           Actually, the irony is that, while this show uses a realistic style of acting — and while Ibsen himself is known for realism, which by its nature should be the antithesis to the melodrama form of his day — the plot has so many scandalous turns packed within its two hours that the story itself, today anyway, feels much more like a soap opera. 

           The plot involves (and I think there’s a 100-year-rule on ‘spoiler alerts’), in this order:  Mr. Alving was an adulterer and rapist, but his wife Helena stayed with him out of “duty”; he had a son, Oswald, who got syphilis from him (don’t worry about the outdated medical knowledge; or, at least, they don’t imply anywhere that Mrs. Alving had subclinical syphilis, though I suppose she could have); Mr. Alving died, but his memory lives on to haunt everyone; they build an orphanage in his name, but don’t insure it because that would be looked down upon by “the right sorts of people” as not trusting enough in God (like, wtf?!);  the maid, Regina, is the bastard daughter of a prostitute and the adulterer-ghost, Mr. Alving; the syphilitic son falls in love with Regina – who – egads! – turns out to be his half-sister (enter either Luke-and-Leia joke, or the old-school melodramatic gesture, “whoa is me,” here);  the ORPHANAGE burns down, fer chrissakes;  and the young man who is dying asks his mom to give him morphine to euthanize him….

Ibsen, by Henrik Olrik, 1879

           Whew!  …  Like.  Wow.  The writers I have known, who worked and snickered in their TV soap opera writer-rooms as they got paid to dream up some nasty thing or another every day that will befall some character or another?  They have NOTHING on Ibsen.  While he famously had Strindberg’s crazed picture there to spook him more into rational thoughts, and realism, it seems this didn’t completely work.  (btw, I wonder if Apollo carried Dionysus’s’ picture on his chariot?)

           The one touch that really did add something bona-fide-contemporary, for me, anyway, was the music. David Coulter, who has been musical director for the likes of Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson (holy crap, really?!) gives touches of musical ambiance with an eclectic array of instruments. Director Perloff nicely places him on the stage for us to see, back within the clutter of the storage room of old furniture, behind the glass, which acts as a sort of scrim when the lights were up or down or out front or above or from behind (all nicely designed by lighting designer, Robert Wierzel, thank you). Coulter was only subtly lit up as he played, whether with his upright smaller version of a glass armonica, or the eerie sounds from an instrument lower down that we couldn’t see, sliding a bow downwards over a … what is that? A saw? A theremin? 

           And he could get very different feelings out of the same instrument, played in unique ways.  Perhaps he would dribble pebbles on a Timpani drum over here, to assist Victoria Deiorio’s sound design when it rained, but then pound the living shit out of it to give us the terrifying feeling of chaos and destruction, as the inferno at the orphanage raged.  But then?  A single strumming of some zither or another, if that’s what suited the scene. I think my favorite sound was of Oswald’s neck pain, from a presumed tertiary syphilitic gumma.  As the pain was being described, Coulter circled his finger around the largest glass, creating a deep, low menacing tone, and then when the pain stabbed, a quick, sharp high-pitched tone from the smallest glass, bowing it piercingly.  (Was that bow strung up with some metallic wire? … Perhaps he stole this idea from Laurie Anderson/Bob Bielecki?  Or Jimmy Page?  Or both?  Oh, hell, give it to him – Coulter is the bowing armonica master….)

           “Fine,” though, is otherwise the word of choice for this production.  Throughout, the acting was fine, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Helena rebutting the Pastor with stern retorts that were yet stiff-upper-lipped in a reserved, Scandinavian manner.  Free-thinking rebuttals that were undoubtedly courageous in their day for a woman, and for a playwright, based on the scandals with which the play was originally dealt.  Strathairn, likewise, played the finger-wagging killjoy, Pastor Manders, as well as could be done, one thinks.  He was appropriately stiff of posture, himself — but oh, what a drippy, pompous role to have to play.  Ugh.  I mean, I know this is how women are oppressed, then and now.  Not only with the domestic violence and the literal assassinations of Ob/Gyn physicians, but also by the insidious self-righteousness of these ubiquitous asshole-religious-leaders, who inspire laws and a culture where the threat of violence against women is omnipresent.  The whole “banality of evil”, and all, I suppose.  But … while actors typically enjoy playing the villain … I’ll betcha not many enjoy this one.  Too subtle.  (I know, I know — and there I was, saying there was too MUCH melodrama!  🙂 

           Albert Rubio III played Oswald … fine, looking rather the 1920s mustachioed Clark Gable…. And Nikita Tewani, as the maid Regina Engstrand, was likewise … fine.  All of the actors were believable, their stories were told, and all in all it was … fine — but the night was just not especially riveting.

           The only really inspired performance, the one that got the most reactions from the audience – and that felt like we were acknowledged as an audience and encouraged to participate — was from Thom Sesma, who played Regina’s step-father, the carpenter, Jakob Engstrand.  With just the wave of his hands and looking out at us, a simple joke about a dance was more engaging than even the climactic euthanasia scene.  To be fair, Sesma was allowed non-Scandinavian/Germanic bigger gestures — freer “working class movements” and struts — that made him much more physically interesting.  There is an interesting cog-sci study that showed that the assumption that Italians gesture more than Germans is incorrect.  Northern Europeans use an equal number, but just have subtler gestures — a slight finger movement here, a slight eyebrow raised there — while Southern Europeans use more proximal muscles, bigger wavings of the arms, etc.  I think, while Strathairn and Mastrantonio’s acting might have been better than I am appreciating, the fault might lie in this very difference.  A subtle facial expression is harder to pick up on in a large theater, and might be better suited for film…?  In any event, Sesma was a breath of fresh air in this otherwise misty set and suffocating play.  (Sesma is the only member of the cast who performed his role in the 2019 production, so perhaps that’s why he seems to have a comfortable, intuitive knowledge of the play?)

Photo by Sayed Alamy, from The Rep’s program. Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff in rehearsal, 2022.

           Perloff’s direction was, likewise … you guessed it … fine, with realistic acting and blocking, and the occasional breaking down of the fourth wall with characters running out into the audience, or the aforementioned Brechtian placement of David Coulter on the stage.  One assumes that with all of the above strategies employed to modernize this old 19th century morality lesson, it would highlight that these issues are a present-day problem, as well.  Perloff says in her interview in the program that she hopes audiences will take from the play that “women have only really begun the fight for autonomy and cultural value.”  Amen.  But, for me anyway, the play doesn’t walk that walk.  I don’t know.  I think perhaps a good rule of thumb, for me, is that, when doing realistic plays that really capture their time – but that come from a time countless generations ago — perhaps use the LEAST realistic style as possible.  Or perhaps, if playing it straight, one might simply project a supertitle in the beginning, that places the whole otherwise-crusty-bygone-era play in a creepy-near-future setting?  “The year is 2045…,” or something?  Make it feel more Handmaid’s Tale-y somehow? Or have giant photos of current misogynist rightwing leaders shown when Manders says “right sorts of people”?  Something less subtle, less realistic, LESS Ibsen is needed to make this 1880s play fresh.  Because as it is, I feel only the highest-of-brow theater majors of the Generation-Millennial-and-Z set will be able to enjoy this. 

           It looks increasingly plausible — with the Federalist Society succeeding at packing the Court, with the far right essentially succeeding at dismantling democracy at every level, with dozens of states enacting laws to put women “back in their place,” and with this dark cloud of nazionalism otherwise sweeping over the entire West these past 10 or so years — that the hard-won human rights of the first waves of feminism are imminently at risk, and that women’s lives are in danger right now.  Thus, on the topic of religion/morality oppressing women, which this play covers, we need a MUCH more impassioned art, that speaks to all women, not just Gen X and Boomer Rep audiences.  An art that really captures today, the here-and-now.  While I love the idea of this play, this production just doesn’t do it for me.  It feels more like … well, Gengangere.  A play that has returned.

           I get it. The oppressive society of the past, of Ibsen’s world, is alive again, today.  I get it.  This production might drive that home for you.  But for me, it was all … I dunno … just, fine.

Copyright April 17, 2022

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Ghosts — The Play that Returned

You Can’t Take It with You

Review of Charleston Stage Company’s Production of the Kaufman and Hart Classic

Archives 1999.

Loves me some Kaufman and Hart. Shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that Kaufman worked with the Marx Brothers. And this play? — They had me at “whacky loveable anarchist grandpa.” I can’t think of another play that has that. And so — to all our quirky families everywhere — CSC’s April 7, 1999, review. …. (Holy crap, this thing is almost exactly 23 years old!! …. We’re all doomed….)

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You Can’t Take It with You

College of Charleston’s Much Ado About Nothing

Archives 1998

My first review for the Charleston City Paper — August 19, 1998. … Geez, my first published theater review ever, actually. Before this, before moving to Chucktown, I had been a goofy playwright in Seattle. But going to a medical university, y’know, there isn’t a whole lot of time, so I switched gears and just enjoyed others’ performances every now and again. But I thought I could stay a little involved by writing reviews — and hoping to encourage others to support the arts.

I’m a booster, yo!

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College of Charleston’s Much Ado About Nothing

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry, Charleston City Paper review, April 1999

1999 Archives

Back in my past life before I turned to neurology and healthcare, I had playwriting classes with Mr. Uhry while at NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program. He seemed like a very decent fellow. Perhaps a personal story about him someday, if anyone wants hear it….

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The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry, Charleston City Paper review, April 1999