Neither fish nor fowl

Shakespeare Festival of Dallas gets the wrong parts of Macbeth right

When I was 12 years old, I went to my first rock concert--at Reunion Arena. My sister and I bought tickets for seats against the back wall of the first balcony--undoubtedly one of the worst deals you can get at Dallas' almost-dormant downtown arena. Yet the assault of funny-smelling smoke; loud, hollowed-out sound; and the thrill of catching a favorite performer's little gestures through my binoculars made it a truly memorable experience.

A few years later, I attended a concert by a less famous but equally revered performer at a site about one-tenth the size of Reunion. The immediacy of interaction with the artist, the more fine-tuned acoustics, and the just plain better sightlines transformed forever what I'd expect from live music--I'd never again wade through the swamp of arena adulation to worship my idols.

The amphitheater at East Dallas' Samuell Grand Park, host for the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' current production of Macbeth, isn't nearly as large as Reunion Arena. And William Shakespeare, profoundly moving though his language is when appropriately performed, isn't one of my idols. Blasphemous though the admission may be, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams fit more comfortably into my own personal pantheon.

And yet, while watching a Tuesday opening-night performance of director Raphael Parry's Macbeth, I was compelled to consider my pop music experiences en masse vs. those that happened in more intimate settings. And I had to conclude that, although Parry's direction of an obviously capable cast made for a faster-moving, relatively more resonant production than last year's clunky Shakespeare Festival staging of Othello, the broad gestures and electronically broadcast soliloquies worked to reduce the power of Shakespeare's most accessible, and therefore most timeless, of tragedies.

But hasn't history dictated that the Old Globe was a mob scene, and Shakespeare a literary artist whose ambitions were firmly grounded in reaching the last sooty row of his Elizabethan audiences? This is what scholars have taught us, and I certainly don't claim the depth of knowledge to compete with their versions. But having seen countless local productions, good and lousy, and studied all the tragedies through high school and college, I'm going to offer an amateur's hypothesis--Shakespeare didn't write for the masses, as we so often hear. Or at least, he wrote as little for the masses as he possibly could, the minimum required to get his shows staged. For the important themes in his work, I suspect he was aiming at as narrow a demographic as now enjoys his work.

The Bard's signature shifts from comedy to tragedy, from subtle insight to bawdy broadside, reflected his sophistication, not his audience's. Television has probably made us collectively less discerning, more impatient, but I suspect the peasants who squeezed into a Shakespearean production while the master was still alive weren't any more cerebral than we. Shakespeare's abrupt bathroom-humor monologues in even his darkest of tragedies--riffs about the unfortunate side effects of alcohol overconsumption by gravediggers in Hamlet and the porter in Macbeth--were the preprogrammed equivalent of channel-surfing in the playwright's day. They were concessions to a demographic he had to please in order to reach immortality, a status determined by far more selective literary gatekeepers.

Likewise, Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' Macbeth plays like a Spielbergian interpretation of some very profound material--canny yet crude, slick but superficial, and naggingly resistant to anything in the way of risk.

Director Raphael Parry might argue that this is the point of Shakespeare staged in his traditional, gloriously democratic outdoor habitat. I don't disagree with him, but I offer as proof of the power of intimacy a vastly superior production of Macbeth performed a while back by his own company, Undermain Theatre, in their cramped basement space. Weird and moody, salty and erotic, Undermain's Macbeth starring Bruce DuBose was a rude shock compared to the Malt-O-Meal tragedy that Shakespeare Festival of Dallas serves up--the dry mix of Willie's look at voracious ambition and its moral consequences must combine with the hot water of your enthusiasm to become a truly tasty preparation. If you love this play and have never seen it live, by all means, come and spread your blanket on the lawn of Samuell Grand. All others will be underwhelmed by what is, on paper, a riveting study of one man's struggle against his own worst instincts.

This Macbeth begins with a tolling of bells and three witches (Joanna Schellenberg, Hai Woon Dunker, Chaneit Johnson) who recite their incantations with a meddlesome, samurai-meets-Jeannie choreography--the Barbara Eden-ish getups didn't help me take their wicked ways seriously. I must say, this was the last time Giva R. Taylor's costume design got in the way for me (with the possible exception of Lady Macbeth's glittery gold Isis-wear)--I'm grateful to almost any production of Shakespeare that doesn't think recostuming means reinvention. The trap doors, flaming pedestals, and dangling Flintstonian gongs by set designer Susan Barrett were also utilitarian, but never obtrusive.

Most of the performances were grounded, and some were even inspired. Khary Phaton as Banquo, Macbeth's comrade who becomes the first sacrificed after our eponymous anti-hero makes his bloody ascent to king, fires every line reading with a vaguely nervous intelligence that makes his murder necessary from the get-go. Kateri Cale as a hooded, white-faced Hecate attended her flame like any card-carrying goddess of the night should.

But how did Lord and Lady fare? Leslie Alexander as Lady Macbeth was a bit too much of a ball-buster for my tastes, a bombastic route that Alexander paves with solid command of the text. Her "unsex me now" speech, always a personal favorite, got lost in the military march of Alexander's concerted but nuance-free performance.

Dan Day as Macbeth labors under another Shakespearean shadow--the actor's own terrific performance as Hamlet in a recent production by Kitchen Dog Theater, the company over which Day serves as artistic director. Reverberating in the confines of the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Day as Hamlet was an irritable, self-indulgent rake--we were free to take his musings as profound or selfish. Day as Macbeth is a megaphone--the voice comes through clearly enough, but the subtleties of tone get lost in the projection. He makes a serviceable fallen hero, going so far as to imbue Macbeth with a frailty that's startling and poignant in the scene with his wife after he's murdered the king, bloody daggers in hand. But I couldn't help but wonder what Day would do with a roof over his head and a smaller, more attentive audience.

Macbeth runs in repertory with Twelfth Night through July 27. Call 559-2778.

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