Next Theatre Company

By Carol Burbank

If it weren’t for productions like Next Theatre’s Macbeth, I’d probably give up on Shakespeare’s tragedies. The standardized, stiffly faux-British productions that most Americans create are more tedious than sad, more museum pieces than theater. But director Kate Buckley and her cast have managed to make something compellingly modern out of the familiar story of the Scottish noble who destroys himself through misguided ambition.

This entertaining blood-and-guts production focuses on the catastrophic effects of Macbeth’s decision to put his own interests before socity’s moral and spiritual health, an antiindividualist approach echoed by Buckley’s citation of Vaclav Havel: “You have chosen the path that is the most comfortable for you and the most dangerous for the country.” In Next’s production, the thematic and visual no-place, no-time serves as a backdrop for the performers’ understated naturalism. Linda Roethke’s costumes are remarkable combinations of the corporate sensibility and mafioso battle gear, suggesting a glamorous but ambiguous setting–a parallel universe with trench coats and ties and tight, black spaghetti-strap dresses but no guns or watches or electric lights. Joseph P. Tilford’s gently raked set is unchanged from the previous production, a neutral space luridly lit with Shannon McKinney’s iridescent blues and greens, casting shadows and creating corners for huddled conferences and eavesdropping.

The most effective and surprising performances come from Jeffrey Bunn as Banquo and Ray Wild as Duncan. These characters often serve as mere emblems of good to be disposed of and mourned. But in this production they’re powerfully lovable, motivated by a heroic sense of camaraderie and honor that makes their deaths doubly horrible. Bunn is particularly charming; even as a ghost, his quick grin is evidence that Macbeth has traded more than his soul. The loss of such a friend makes Macbeth’s tragic isolation more pitiful even as it makes his tyranny more criminal. Remembering Banquo’s warmth and Duncan’s grandfatherly generosity, I mourned the gentler world Macbeth destroys when he assassinates his allies.

Steve Pickering’s Macbeth and Lia Mortensen’s Lady Macbeth are complicated foils to their victims’ honesty. Vulnerable even in their most violent moments, they reveal an increasing despair and fear both pitiful and deserved. This production personalizes their degeneration by emphasizing the ways their ambition destroys their marriage: Buckley breaks all erotic and emotional connections between them. As Lady Macbeth goads her husband or tries to cover for his increasing madness, she’s the mirror of a successful, neglected corporate wife. She seduces her husband to greatness but loses his partnership and respect. Disconnected from love, Macbeth becomes coarser and blunter in his speech and gestures as his fear drives him to greater crimes. Buckley has him kill Lady Macduff in a brutal rape scene–he’s become an animal, marking his territory with violence. By the end, the couple are ugly, exhausted, and useless to themselves and each other.

In this production the witches’ victory seems an easy one. Rising from the dead bodies on the battlefield, these sensual, eerie figures (played gleefully by Alison Halstead, Michael Park Ingram, and Naama Potok) trap Macbeth immediately despite his scripted moments of doubt. Buckley makes the newly peaceful Scotland seem a benign place for Macbeth until he illogically destroys the king, his own soul, and his honor. Pickering makes Macbeth’s acquiescence a weakness growing directly out of machismo. Seduced by promises of greatness and sexual prowess, he follows the witches, his wife, and his own lust for unearned glory. This Macbeth is easily convinced to kill the very people who have just given him a secure position of wealth and promises of future favor.

But this is a small glitch in an otherwise heartfelt and solid performance and viscerally engaging production. With the exception of a few minor characters (unfortunately including the clowning Porter), the supporting cast make the complex relationships clear throughout the most confusing speeches. By the end, I was torn between grieving for Macbeth’s destruction and cheering on brave Macduff (gruffly played by Ted Koch) as he revenged the rape of his wife and his country and killed Macbeth. From the stage fighting to the famous soliloquies, Next’s production makes Shakespeare’s ancient story zing, fulfilling our need to be horrified, reassured, and, above all, entertained.