Armed and Loquacious

Is that a handgun that I see before me? It is. In Shakespeare Dallas' just-opened production of Macbeth, the Scottish and Norwegian troops wear modern camo and fire pistols and automatic weapons.

Not as visually graceful as clanging swords perhaps, but going bang-bang sure could shorten the battle scenes. If only. William Shakespeare's briefest tragedy comes in right under three hours in the outdoor production directed by guest artist Stefan Novinski at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in East Dallas. Toward the witching hour it doth creep at a petty pace, to quote its title character's most famous speech, despite strong acting throughout by Chris Hury and Joanna Schellenberg as the homicidal Macbeths. Aaron Roberts is Bruce Willis-y as their nemesis Macduff. H. Francis Fuselier lightens the mood as the tipsy old porter who delivers what could be our Mother Tongue's first recorded "knock-knock" jokes.

And three cheers for the three "weird sisters," played with skeery screeches and whirly arms by Julia Vanderveen, Anastasia Munoz and Donjalea Chrane (who also plays Lady Macduff). They storm in with Shakespeare's most intriguing opening lines: "When shall we three meet again/ In thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won."

Lost and won, eh? Just the first of the Bard's paradoxical word puzzles in Macbeth. Action-packed, brimming with curses, spells, dreams and ghosts, it is Shakespearean noir, just in time for Halloween season.

It's also one of the top five Shakespearean plays done too often on stages in Dallas and Fort Worth. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a Macbeth around here. (Cue the witch swinging the dead cat.) At least 10 versions, including an all-woman cast, one in S&M costumes and another done goth style have gone up in recent years. There were two in 2011, at Trinity Shakespeare Festival and at Kitchen Dog Theater, where they also put their Scots in army uniforms with guns.

Why so many Macbeths? Well, it doesn't require a cast of thousands (merely 21 for this latest production), and it does have an easy-to-follow storyline, compared to, say, Timon of Athens or Troilus and Cressida. Macbeth's uncomplicated plot sounds like the outline for a Bruckheimer movie (even more so at Shakespeare Dallas, where sound designer Bruce Richardson has added the loud fwap-fwaps of small arms fire and the roars of choppers hovering).

Lusting for power after victory on the battlefield, Macbeth, a Scottish general, is convinced by his wife that the shortest route to success is to murder their houseguest, King Duncan (played by Steven Young). That goes as planned, except for Macbeth's bad case of the yips before and after stabbing Duncan in his sleep. Lady Macbeth, ever the ball-buster, tells him to man up and grab the crown as Scotland's new king.

Just before their celebration cocktail hour, however, a shaky Macbeth puts out a hit on Banquo (Marcus Stimac), another general smart enough to suss out who offed Duncan. Hiring three assassins who don't know each other (another nice cinematic touch), Macbeth has Banquo killed. But he won't stay dead. As guests gather at the banquet, the specter of blood-soaked Banquo turns up in Macbeth's seat. Mackers freaks out. Lady Mackers smacks him upside the head (verbally) and rushes the guests out the door before they can recommend her husband for a 72-hour hold.

The ghostly sighting doesn't slow down the killing spree. Macduff flees to England, leaving family behind. So Macbeth's men do more slicing and dicing (nice loud dying by young actors Tanner Jackson and Spencer and Rylie Mae Dittrich as the Macduff kids).

The castle bloodbath has Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep, wringing her hands, muttering "Out damn'd spot!" and acting like some Ambien-crazed Real Housewife of Glames. (The lovely Schellenberg hits every note just right in that scene.) She then drops dead offstage for no other reason than Shakespeare needed her out of the way and there had to be character motivation for Macbeth's finest soliloquy.

And what a fine 12 lines it is. With great efficiency by Shakespeare, we get Macbeth's reaction to the news that his wife has shuffled off her mortal coil (hey, that's Hamlet!) as lead-in to one of theater's greatest moments of self-realization. Shakespeare Dallas actor Hury gives the speech an admirable, if not inspiring, interpretation, but it's still a doozy:

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

What a gorgeous, if nihilistic, way to look at this little drama we call life. In nearly every chunk of dialogue afforded to Macbeth, he obsesses about time and not having enough of it. In this speech, Shakespeare has him say "hereafter," "tomorrow" (repeated like a mantra), "day to day," "yesterdays" and "his hour." He likens life to nothing more than a show starring a bad actor — an "idiot," in Shakespeare's view — who "struts and frets" through a noisy tale that, in the end, amounts to nada.

It's only here, late in the play, with his castle caked in the DNA of everyone he knew, that Macbeth finally sees that he's missed the point of life entirely. His ambition and ego have ruined him — he was basically the 11th century Donald Trump, with better hair — and now Macduff's army, camouflaged by tree branches, is creeping up to kill him, a trick predicted by the hags.

At Shakespeare Dallas, after all the sound and fury of witches and apparitions and gunfights at the Gaelic corral, director Novinski chooses to drag out the climactic showdown between Macbeth and Macduff. Having introduced high-powered weapons in this production, they suddenly go old school, duking it out with bare fists instead (fight choreography is by Lloyd Caldwell). The actors roll around for far too long, fake-slugging each other on scenic designer Bob Lavallee's raked, sand-covered stage, with the castle canted at 45 degrees behind them.

Come on, fellas, you've strutted and fretted three hours upon that stage. Somebody reach for the gun and blow Macbeth's head off, so we can all head home.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, there'll be another Macbeth, and a Macduff who will pull that trigger sooner.

There's more Shakespeare to come. The five-year collaboration between Shakespeare Dallas and ATTPAC will do every one of Willy's plays as staged readings starring local actors on Sundays and Mondays throughout the year. Next up: Othello, October 14 and 15 in the studio theater at the Winspear. A full production of King Lear (also in modern dress) opens January 18 at Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly. Bishop Arts Theater Center will present A Midsummer Night's Dream in Oak Cliff starting April 12.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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