Lay On, MacBuff

Theatre Britain strips the Scottish play and its actors down to their bare essentials

Who knew Macbeth could be so hot? Theatre Britain, that plucky little company so skilled at staging farces and Christmas pantos for the kiddies, now brings forth Shakespeare's bloodiest play in a production at the Trinity River Arts Center that strips away everything that isn't absolutely necessary.

That includes the actors' shirts.

No complaints, mind you. Adding some skin and sex to the blustery poetry and stylized violence of Macbeth really spices up the evening. One way to boost box office for an ancient play shrouded in mystery is to eliminate the shrouds.

This is one sexy Macbeth, with Steven Pounders 
(Macbeth) and Sue Birch (Lady Macbeth).
This is one sexy Macbeth, with Steven Pounders (Macbeth) and Sue Birch (Lady Macbeth).

Everything about this Macbeth throbs with hormonal heat, from the sizzling chemistry between the two leading actors--Steven Pounders in the title role and Theatre Britain founder Sue Birch as Lady Macbeth--to the minimalist, S&M-inspired costumes. Have there been other plays recently whose credits featured a "leather consultant"?

Casting super-buff Pounders and splashing his naked torso on the posters definitely created some pre-run interest in one of the Bard's most relentlessly overproduced titles. With or without a doublet, Pounders, a Baylor University theater prof, is a polished and experienced actor (he's Equity and a regular in Theatre Britain productions). And as Thane of Cawdor, he does fine by Shakespeare's fiery lingo. He could even slow down his rapid-fire delivery a little to let us enjoy the longer speeches. He's that good. But there's no denying a certain added visual value in watching this actor express his character's anger with a flex of his impressively pumped-up pecs. Inner turmoil he illustrates with a subtle ripple of his six-pack. Rrrrrowf.

This is a Macbeth unkilted and unkind. Pounders uses his physicality to create an ambition-driven Scottish general who struts around feeling superior to his peers not just because of his innate ability to scheme his way to the top but for his willingness to ride into battle barefoot and wearing what appear to be thin yoga pants and a pair of studded leather suspenders (costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith with "consultant" Dan Miga). This is a king comfortable in bare bodkin, a manly hunk of haggis with no equal. As Pounders plays him, Macbeth's bulging muscles, in their own way, are as menacing as his threats. Fie on knives, knaves! It's barbells at dawn!

All gimmicks aside, Theatre Britain offers a condensed yet faithful take on the spooky old play. (The performance clocks in under two hours with intermission.) Directed by Robin Armstrong with an eye to creating artful arrangements of beautiful bodies, nine actors take on the guises of everyone from the "toil and trouble" trio of witches to the army of insurgents plotting to overthrow Macbeth by sneaking up on Dunsinane castle behind the branches of Burnam Wood.

It's certainly a good-looking ensemble, low body-fat ratios and lack of excessive chest hair rivaling crisp diction as requirements for casting. Mark Shum, so deliciously evil in Richardson Theatre Centre's recent Dangerous Liaisons, makes a taut and snarling Banquo. Chad Gowan Smith gives a strong if pinched turn as Macduff. Beau Trujillo manages to keep his Duncan different from his Malcolm (he also plays a murderer and one of the witches). Trisha Miller Smith, last seen hanging upside down and sporting eight legs in Dallas Children's Theater's excellent Charlotte's Web, works up great anguish as Lady Macduff, whose baby is murdered before her eyes.

More than ever the play seems like a two-character affair, however, all about the status-hungry Thane and his in-thane wife, Lady Macbeth (played by Birch with roiling sensuality and wavy hair extensions). The more they plot to snuff a series of high-level houseguests--Dunsinane being the roach motel of Scottish palaces--the hotter they get for each other. These two use homicide as aphrodisiac, kissing and pawing wildly before and after every murder. When at last Duncan is found dead and his sons are incriminated for the deed, Birch's Lady Macbeth is so turned on by her husband's crime, which guarantees his accession to the throne of Scotland, that she leaps into his arms for a deep, humpy smooch that curls her toes.

Since it's all just a big game for the main couple, the action appropriately plays out abstractly on a wide, deep set by designer Darryl Clement that resembles a disassembled chessboard. Cubes open to reveal steaming cauldrons and troughs of water (the better to try to wash off all that blood, M'Lady). Costumes and set pieces are rendered in subtle shades of silvers and blacks, providing a neutral palette onto which Shakespeare's words and the characters' purple emotions add the colors. Over the stage hangs a single burst of gold in the shape of a large glowing disc, a flat sun staring like a god's eye onto the Macbeths' dark deeds. (And perhaps serving as a symbolic explanation for the cast's oaken tans, which are credited in the program and on a lobby display to a national spray-tan franchise.)

Blinded by ambition, swept up in his own ego, Macbeth doesn't decipher soon enough the warnings from the soothsayers who tell him "no man borne of woman" will defeat him and that he's safe from harm until the woods start walking toward his castle (perhaps the first example in literature of soldiers donning leaves as camouflage).

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