Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theatre

There’s no denying that the visual imagery in Shakespeare Repertory’s Macbeth is gorgeous: The pile of golden autumn leaves in one downstage corner, with more leaves drifting down at intervals, glowing in their individual spotlight. The rain shower of real water streaming from above and trickling down the raked upstage platform. The arrangement of the act three, scene four, banquet to resemble a Rembrandt-esque Last Supper, with metal goblets gleaming through the shadowy darkness and Banquo’s ghost like a resurrected Christ. A diminutive servant who drags a throne onto the stage and then sets his teeth into its arm. Any moment in this production could be frozen and stand alone as a work of art.

Unfortunately, the production disintegrates when it goes into action. It turns out the leaves are there for the characters to roll around in, orgasmically or remorsefully. (That motif seems inspired by Macbeth’s line, “My way of life is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf . . . ” This is the first time I’ve ever seen this device, sometimes called in the classroom a “central visual metaphor,” employed in a theater.) The rain ensures that Macbeth and Banquo can be surprised in the almost-altogether by three exceptionally horny witches done up in mummy drag. The Last Supper tableau and Bunuel-esque furniture- biting, though interesting, contribute nothing to our understanding of the play. Nor does the one-man band, making incidental music that ranges from folk-blues with falsetto vocal and body drum to wavering trills on flute or saxophone.

The invention doesn’t stop there. Director Roman Polak has decided to make Macbeth a 30-something junior executive with a nymphet wife who prods his ambition with her all-powerful sexuality. “To beguile the time, look like the time,” she advises, straddling her husband after welcoming him home with open legs. “Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue. Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it,” she carols, delivering a coital thrust and following through to a quick and dainty climax. “We will speak further,” gasps her winded spouse, whereupon the audience chuckles sympathetically.

All the other potential schoolroom giggles in the script are likewise indulged to the fullest–just guess what stage business accompanies the line “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Characters point at their own and one another’s privates, and Lady M fondles herself like a masturbating virgin and plays her famous mad scene like a stoned Valley Girl. This depiction of Lady Macbeth may explain the liberties taken by King Duncan, here portrayed as a pompous, senile windbag (a la Judge Hoffman in The Chicago Conspiracy Trial). “He rides well,” says the old lech, leering down at the nubile backside of his subordinate’s wife, “and his great love, sharp as his spur, hath helped him.”

Other characters also fall prey to eccentric interpretations: Macduff is played as an inarticulate lout with a bizarre accent like an underdeveloped Scottish burr, and Malcolm as an effete stripling who all but blushes when admitting his virginity (it’s a throwaway line, but emphasized in this production lest we miss a potential sophomoric snigger). Noble Banquo indulges in petty jealousy of Macbeth’s good fortune, and chivalrous Macduff charges on an unarmed adversary (in some jim-dandy battle choreography by Bruce A. Young and David Woolley, stylistically identical to that Woolley performed in his comedy act with Douglas Mumaw). The results are intellectually provoking and viscerally thrilling, but one leaves knowing nothing more about Macbeth than when one came in–and even less about Shakespearean drama, thanks to some of the strangest phrasing in the history of oral interpretation: “The multitudinous seas in-car-ni-dine, making the green [pause] one red.”

When the director’s concept produces the flaws in a production, nothing can escape. The cast of this Macbeth includes many fine and experienced performers who I’m certain would not be playing their characters this way if someone hadn’t instructed them to do so. (Or conversely, not stopped them from doing so: Peter Siragusa delivers the comical Porter’s speech with the abandoned excess of one above directorial editing.) Shakespeare Repertory, which has won many awards, comes with high recommendations, and I wanted to enjoy this, my first experience with their work. Colleagues inform me that this production departs from their usual standards and methods. This may be true, and their reputation may be well deserved. In this production, however, I could have done with a little less Rep and a little more Shakespeare.