Sometimes the best thing a production of Macbeth can have is a strong actor playing Macbeth. And if that actor is as strong a presence as Bershan Shaw, then half the battle is won. She’s a woman? So adapt. Which is what Kristina O’Neal did in this production, even to giving the play a new name. Shakespeare’s not rolling over in his grave.
OK, so there is a little dissonance. "Hail Queen that shall be" can be the equivalent of a bump in the familiar road, but Shaw certainly was queenly. She was also fierce -- part Xena, part Pam Grier, and very modern as she delivered completely understandable Shakespeare. Better yet, she was plausible simply because she knew what the words mean. Not a small accomplishment in any actor. She had a fierce and scary Lady Macbeth (Uzma Majid), and both projected a simple matter-of-factness that they both were women. Their power/relationship agendas were more important than the gay angle, so when Lady M played up to Duncan (John Dohrmann), she had several items she intended to check off her to-do list. And while she fooled her on-stage spectators, it was all quite clear to the audience. Meaning rang even louder when she told her Macbeth to "be so much more the man," or the implication that she, not the female Macbeth, had "given suck" to a babe at her breast.
The men in the cast had a harder time of it, but as Malcolm Will Brunson’s grief and sobbing at his father’s death were real, and he was also strong enough that Malcolm’s running away seemed prudent, and it might actually be best with Malcolm in charge at the end. But the unexpected resonances in familiar text were most intriguing -- when Macbeth describes her lineage as barren, it means something different coming from a woman. And some good staging put Macbeth front and center delivering her lines as Banquo (Josh Stein-Sapir) is murdered in the background -- the same Banquo she had flirted with as she was plotting against him.
Cuts to Shakespeare are perhaps inevitable, but it was too bad there was no Lady Macduff to present a matronly comparison with the warrior queen. There might even have been room for the usually maligned Hecate, to present another side of the female. Or perhaps O’Neal was right to focus so securely on Shaw’s Macbeth. Major intensity plus the ability to keep the dialog conversational -- why go anywhere else. Shaw also kept character and psychology in focus when, for example, she was informed of Lady Macbeth’s death -- she was (correctly) drained of emotion, but not character.
Mistress Macbeth was not quite a one-character show, but it often seemed that way. It’s understandable for the various nobles to blend into one another (which they did here), and for the intrigue to seem less important than the effect (which it did). But this was a handsome production, with good costumes that showed flair and character (designed by Frank J. Tropiano), effective lighting (uncredited) that highlighted emotion, and a good set, representing stones of the castle, most of which were cracked or in ruins (by Isabelle Hidaka).
But this Macbeth also wielded a mean sword (fight direction by Laurie Miller-Peterson), and was so strong and (dare it be said?) sympathetic, it was hope against hope that the ending would be different this time. Scotland may be better run without her, but it will be a less interesting place.
Also with Laverne Cox, Oksana Lada, Eunhye Grace Sakong, Stephanie Szostak, and Brandy Wykes as an intriguing and disturbing quintet of witches (as well as other roles), and Joe Pistone.
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Copyright 2004 David Mackler