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Civitas Theatre

at the Transient Theatre


A Stage of One’s Own

Scholars often debate whether it is ever necessary or desirable to “update” Shakespeare. Stances range from the hard-core purist view, which would have all roles played by male actors as the custom was in Shakespeare’s time, to the revisionist position that there’s no harm in altering a play from prologue to denouement in accordance with prevailing fashion. It seems clear that theater is not like sculpture, however–it’s a performing art, a fluid form capable of withstanding an extraordinary amount of pummeling with no loss of essence or integrity.

Now, 375 years after the author’s death, renovations on Shakespeare are inevitable. These are usually accomplished in one of two ways. Either the play is dressed up in contemporary trappings–props, costumes, etc–but otherwise played as straight Elizabethan drama, with every “thee” and “thou” intact. Or a whole new play is constructed, through which a few threads of Shakespeare’s original dialogue are occasionally woven. Civitas Theatre has opted for the former in its production of Macbeth; a Stage of One’s Own for the latter in West Bank Story, advertised as “a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” But however diverse their methods, both companies succeed in achieving the primary goal of art, which is to make an old story new.

Macbeth “is about the seduction of absolute power, and the randomness and senselessness of tyranny. . . . Civitas Theatre wishes to dedicate it’s inaugural production, Macbeth, to all the newly freed peoples of the world and to those who await the hour of their redemption,” runs the program note by director Louis Contey, who has set Shakespeare’s tale of political intrigue and divine retribution in “a military dictatorship,” sometime in the 20th century. This makes for some interesting variations. The witches are now battlefield ghouls, for example, looting and eating the corpses of fallen soldiers, several of whom, strung up in a cave like sides of beef, are reanimated through voodoolike magic to serve as grisly prognosticating apparitions. The move from swords to modern weapons provides an opportunity for some nifty stage combat, culminating in a showdown in which Macbeth and Macduff square off with commando knives.

Though some modifications don’t add much, none get in the way. Contemporary furniture notwithstanding, we know that this is 11th-century Scotland and that today’s leaders, even of military dictatorships, are decided by means far more complex. Contey’s minor changes to the text do add some new dimensions: Macbeth joins his team of assassins to deliver the coup de grace to Banquo, which heightens his horror later when he sees Banquo’s ghost, and the messenger who comes to warn Lady Macduff of approaching murderers is one of Macbeth’s former allies, indicating that the morale of his supporters is being eroded.

But these changes are eclipsed by the Civitas company’s superlative handling of Shakespeare’s language. From the title character down to the lowest supernumerary, the cast display a sophisticated virtuosity remarkable in actors so young; they speak 17th-century blank verse as easily as street vernacular. That a large portion of the company are products of the Goodman-DePaul theater school only partly accounts for this phenomenon–a performance can be technically perfect and still boring, as the Renaissance Theatre’s King Lear demonstrated last spring. What makes Civitas give such good Shakespeare is the vigorous urgency they bring to such familiar material. Even theatergoers who can recite “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” in their sleep will hear new things in this production.

Much of the rejuvenation stems from Ted Rubenstein playing Macbeth as a tyrant who grows more manic as the pressures increase. He straps on his arms long before the battle begins; delivers the “I have lived long enough” speech, in which Macbeth acknowledges the corruption into which he has fallen, as a defiant snarl; and virtually commits suicide by charging unarmed onto the blade of Macduff’s weapon. As Macduff, Michael Kendall also exhibits a street fighter’s scrappiness, giving a great roar of triumph and anguish after he defeats his opponent. Wendy Williamson makes a sensual Lady Macbeth, greeting the news of her husband’s initial promotion with a long, sizzling kiss; Rhonda Reynolds is delicately childlike as Lady Macduff (Joey Ascaridis winds up stealing her scene with him as the small son who dies manfully defending his mother).

The rest of the cast, doubling or even tripling roles in swift succession, have little time to get too deeply into their characters, but there are nicely detailed performances from Tom Drummer as a laid-back Banquo, from C.C. Cook as the hung-over porter (one of the most awkward roles in Shakespeare), from Thomas Rakness as a compassionate Lenox, and from Becky Netherland, Mary Spencer, and Reynolds as the truly disquieting witches. The technical aspects of the production are professional and resourceful: an ingenious chain-and-canvas set by Mark Netherland, martial garb spanning several wars by Nanette M. Acosta, well-placed incidental music combining spoken choruses and synthesizer (uncredited in the program), and stage combat choreographed by Jeffrey Doornbos. The production uses every bit of stage room in the Transient Theatre, one of the finest new performance spaces to open this year. With this production Civitas demonstrates that it is a most promising new troupe.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” an American TV reporter asks a rabbi in Sharon Sassone’s West Bank Story, which purports to set Romeo and Juliet in present-day Israel. It’s an important question, for the answer determines the credibility of this interpretation of Shakespeare’s familiar tale.

If we do not believe in love at first sight, we have nothing to divert us from many factors, largely unaddressed by the playwright, that divide Tiffany, a Jewish girl from Dallas, and Mohammad, a Palestinian who works as a dishwasher in a Jerusalem hotel. (The hotel is owned by the mother of Chaim, a young officer in the Israeli army and, coincidentally, Tiffany’s cousin.) This is more than a family feud–these two lovers are separated not only by political and religious differences but by legal, economic, and geographic distances as well. If we don’t believe, we might be a bit skeptical of the motives of a rebellious American adolescent–Tiffany deliberately dresses for a wedding in a gown considered immodest by Israeli standards, and says that because she was expelled from school, her divorced parents packed her off to relatives in the old country. We might also examine the intentions of a young man raised in war-torn poverty who’s suddenly enamored of a rich American. “They use us, you know,” his friend Mazan warns him. “They’ve heard the stories about us ‘sheikhs’ with all our harems, but when they’re done–bang! We’re out with the garbage.” We might be aghast at the decision of two ostensibly mature adults, journalist Renata Charles and Rabbi Lawrence, that the best solution for these two troubled teenagers is to get married–in a land that frequently punishes such nonconformity. It might even occur to us that despite the setting, there’s only one word–the same word–uttered in Hebrew and Arabic, and that, though the script calls attention to their varying accents, all the characters speak in a uniform midwestern dialect–even Chaim’s name is anglicized.

If we do believe in love at first sight, however, none of these essentially intellectual flaws will make a bit of difference. After all, if it weren’t for their people fighting, Tiffany and Mohammad might well have the time to discuss practical matters like a bullet-free place to spend their honeymoon, or to acknowledge a mutual adolescent infatuation brought on by personal and environmental stress. If the sight of death by violence were not so common, Tiffany and Mohammad might not be so quick to choose suicide as their only chance for happiness. If the actions of the characters in West Bank Story seem to us astonishing, appalling, or both, Sassone’s play seems to say, it is because we have created a world in which it is impossible for young lovers to act except in haste and disorder. That’s bad–no matter what political, religious, or geographical side you happen to be on.

If one is willing to accept Sassone’s “love is all you need” message, it’s possible to note the cleverness of her translation from Elizabethan to modern English: you can still hear echoes of Shakespeare in the vernacular. For example, instead of Juliet’s “My bounty is as boundless as the sea . . . the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite,” you have Tiffany’s “My love is as deep as the sea–and I don’t even know how deep that is! I guess it’s unlimited.” The acting is uneven, but Emily Brown makes a slyly enigmatic Renata, Deanna Boyd a charmingly impetuous Tiffany, and Tim Van Metter a suitably intense Mohammad. Arch Harmon gives dignity to the role of the hothead Mazan, as does Dennis Beaty to the well-meaning Rabbi Lawrence. By way of scenery in this tiny theater of 30 seats, there is a mural of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, executed with impressionistic flourish by Christina Koehlinger.

An old proverb states that while it is theoretically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that insect blithely continues to do so with ease. Those who cannot bring themselves to accept the premise of West Bank Story–that true love can spring up instantaneously and that it is of paramount importance–will have problems with this adaptation (as they probably have with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well). Wherever its brains may lie, however, there is no denying that West Bank Story has its heart in the right place. In a world badly in need of peace, that’s fuel enough to fly a short distance, anyway.