John Ross's production of Macbeth is more than a reading. He has incorporated too many of the elements of drama to call it that. In the process he has created a form of his own. What he has added by way of a spectacle is no mere backdrop; the resulting whole is a sort of dance, contrived of gestures and juxtapositions as well as words. It is totally absorbing.
No author is better suited than Shakespeare to this kind of confined performance. His characters describe the scenery. His imagery colors the world in which they move. There is so much for an actor to do with each line, that any but the best must stumble in the robes, or forget the demeanor, that a full-scale production demands. And there is so much for the audience to enjoy and consider in the words alone, that the traditional trappings are often a distraction.
But the excellence of this production lies not alone in its modesty. Ross at once exercises audacity and restraint. With a sure instinct for what will work--and for what he need not bother with--he has used the ample talents of his cast to their fullest.
The minor players seem to flourish within the constraints. The cast was dressed entirely in black, all the men in pants and turtleneck jerseys. Perhaps because of this they concentrated on verbal and facial characterizations. Confined behind their reading stands, they leaned on them, stood erect, or turned away as the situation demanded. It was nowhere so mechanical as it may sound. Within this small vocabulary of movements, none was ever out of key.
Ross works on the same principle in positioning his characters on the stage. I would call the blocking symbolic if it weren't so unobtrusively complementary to the play. And within the limits of seven or eight reading stands, the actors do work subtle variations.
When Banquo (Richard Blau) and Macbeth (John Lithgow) first appear, for instance, they stand so close together as to be actually touching. After the salutation of the weird sisters Banquo always stands across the stage from Macbeth. That last is simple enough. It was their extreme closeness at first that was so good, both because they had just returned from fighting side by side in a battle, and because when they do draw apart at the witches' greeting it as if the better and the evil part of one-man were differentiating themselves.
The acting of the leads is uniformly superb. But even here, I think it was this particular form of production that focused their various excellences. Laura Esterman, who played Lady Macbeth, used her rich voice to the full, and to telling effect.
Carl Nagin too, who played Macduff, has a good voice and a fine sense of timing. The form employed them well. Blau's Banquo has an air about him that suggests great insight and great sorrow.
Only Lithgow seems to be straining at the restrictions. His fits, his rage, his fear, his humor, demanded a bigger stage. It may be, too, that Lithgow hasn't worked out his interpretation of the part completely. Before the murder of Duncan he is too fearful; his ambition is not quite convincing. After that he alternates between a derisive irony and an unhinged fury that don't seem completely related.
But like everyone else in the cast he makes of his character a human being. And if that human being is perplexing, perhaps the production is better for it.
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