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There is no better time to see a Shakespeare play than political season. We are already primed for the drama: the factions, the contenders, the presumptives, the prognosticators. The shifting allegiances. The grand speeches. The loud and obnoxious clown, so popular with the masses that he becomes a recurring character. An unwieldy cast of minor characters that no one can keep straight. This is our daily fare during the primaries.
It is perhaps no accident that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre has chosen to open its 2015-16 season with "Macbeth," the Shakespeare play that best reflects Americans' current distrust of the political system and its skepticism of political power couples. "Macbeth" director Robert Hupp suggests this connection, calling it "the original 'House of Cards' " on The Rep's website.
You remember the basics from 10th grade. Macbeth, until now an honorable and loyal Scottish lord, is prophesied to become king by the three witches of "double, double, toil and trouble" fame. But to get there he must murder the present king. He is constantly prodded and goaded by Lady Macbeth, that political spouse who haunts all others. Murder begets murder, and soon the bodies of Macbeth's best friend, Lady Macbeth, and a half dozen other characters litter the stage. As a woman behind me at Sunday night's performance said, late in the fifth act, "There are not many characters left to kill." There is one more, of course (spoiler alert for those long past high school): Macbeth himself, killed by Macduff in the final scene.
The scenery for The Rep's production is a deconstructed castle rampart, with several portals and openings, multiple floor levels, and timbers protruding from the wall at chaotic angles. It works surprisingly well, for scenes interior and exterior, intimate and violent. As the play is set to start, three heaps of ragged, discarded fabric litter the stage. What appears to be a corpse lays stage center. And there is clearly a head on a pike.
The hiss of the smoke machines quiet the preperformance chatter in the audience. And suddenly those three piles of ratty rags, which have lain motionless on the stage since the first theatergoer took her seat, rise and unfurl themselves. These are the three witches, their costumes some cross between dreadlocked Indian sadhus and the Tusken Raiders from "Star Wars."
While the witches chant, the text of their lines is projected helter-skelter onto the scenery. The effect is of multiple news tickers running across a TV screen, and it almost outweighs the brilliant costuming and staging of the scene. (The projected words and faces don't end with the witches' scenes. Technology becomes a poor stand-in for the other-worldly throughout the production, any time a vision or ghost is meant to appear.)
The stage then becomes an 11th century Scottish fashion show, replete with plaids, animal skins, weapons and wigs (so many that there is a "Wig Design" credit given in the playbill). The unfamiliar names — Donalbain, Fleance, Siward — further muddle the characters. And then there is the language — "Shakespearean" we call it, though we mean archaic and difficult. Every modern production of Shakespeare must contend with it, must find a way for the play to be more than a frenzy of memorized lines. Since this depends as much on the audience's efforts as the actors', this production at times feels like a line reading in costume.
But several individual performances lift the production. Michael Stewart Allen as Macbeth carries the play. It is telling that several of the strongest scenes involve him alone on stage. Joseph J. Menino as the porter steals one scene, as the character is meant to, but Menino also commands the eye as a mere attendant playing opposite Lady Macbeth. Heather Dupree (an acquaintance of the reviewer) delivers a strong Lady Macduff, that motherly contrast to Lady Macbeth.
As the lights came up for intermission, the lady behind me woke up and asked if the play was over. Much of the audience, having just watched several disturbing murders, filed out to the concession stand for white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies. And a man in front of me read the "Macbeth" entry on Wikipedia on his smartphone. There was no talk of the play.
After intermission, the play sped toward its bloody end, the lights came up, the audience stood and clapped dutifully. I was lost in my own world as we filed out — mentally recasting Macbeth from the current slate of presidential candidates, if you must know — when I overheard the conversation of a young woman near me. A teacher, she had invited her students to Macbeth. Only one showed up. Teacher and student ran into each other in the lobby, and there was a brief exchange.
"What did you think?" the teacher asked.
"It was good."
"Pretty crazy, right?" the teacher said, obviously trying to coax her student into engaging the play's messy messages. "Good?" I imagined the teacher thinking. "You, who will vote for the first time this year, have just witnessed what unbridled ambition and power can do in the world. Take heed."
But the student had already walked on toward the exit.