Shake-ing it up

What a curious theatrical creature is Shakespeare for the Modern Man, Lesson 1: Macbeth, currently rattling the boards at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. I can't count it as altogether successful, because there are so many sonic, thematic, and verbal threads running through it that playwright-adapter Scott A. Eckert couldn't possibly work the needle fast enough to weave them all together into a satisfactory experience. But the same dissolution that keeps it from being a great piece also makes it rarely boring and sometimes startling in the unexpected choices made by Eckert, who also directed the show he subtitles "An Abomination in 5 Acts."

This should be an ideal production for me, the critic who flirts with imbecility at best, heresy at worst for my regular complaints about live Shakespeare. Do I think Willie will survive my hectoring? If I were a betting man, I'd give him the odds. But I also know that I've had many conversations with actors, directors, and audience members who agree with me wholeheartedly--Shakespeare is too oft performed and too little comprehended. One prominent director in town, a man who's staged big-budget revivals with national actors, says he makes a point of stopping performers after they deliver long monologues during rehearsals and saying: "OK, explain to me what you just said." Some of the most experienced actors stare back at him in sheepish silence.

This sets up a contradiction that the Bard would love: His very impenetrability is what keeps us trying again and again. But I often get the feeling that neither we, the audience, nor the folks onstage are making much headway. And in a theater world where support for new work seems to be growing scarcer, the reliance on Shakespeare feels cowardly, pretentious, provincial. Instead of trying something new, and maybe discovering a fresh masterpiece every once in a while, people will shell out big bucks for the Elizabethan master and not understand a goddamn thing they're hearing. But it doesn't matter, because it's Shakespeare. Shakespeare for the Modern Man, Lesson 1: Macbeth addresses this situation forthrightly and with intentional comedy. It's a two-hour version of the play in which the stage is divided in half--to the right are portions of the original dialogue spoken with grand sincerity by an actor, to the left is a different actor playing the same role and speaking some very modern paraphrasings of the play courtesy of Eckert.

You can imagine how fast this gimmick would run out of juice if Pocket Sandwich were to utilize it for the entire show. But luckily, Eckert guides his cast to interact in clever ways. The two Macbeths collapse in on each other, sometimes hilariously (as in this interaction between Terri Ferguson's Old Lady Macbeth and Sally O'Casey's New Lady Macbeth: OLM: "Peasant!" NLM: "Snob!" OLM: "Idiot!" NLM: "Bitch!") and sometimes poignantly (when the two Ladys embrace weeping, for mutual solace, when they cannot clean their bloody hands). When the New Macbeth (James Venhaus) discovers that the witches have tricked him with their "no man of woman born can kill Macbeth" prophecy after MacDuff (Wm. Paul Williams) announces he has been "ripped untimely" from his mother's womb, Venhaus brought down the house with one exasperated cry: "A C-section?!"

For every couple of gags that work, though, there's one that sinks, which makes for a fairly inconsistent evening. After The Narrator (Tony Martin) sets up the two versions, he returns too often for some compulsory physical shtick. And although the decision to score the show entirely with ZZ Top tunes is presumably inspired by the fact that the three witches are "bearded," that's an awfully loose nail on which to hang an entire evening of music. With its chunky guitars and thumping bass line, the Texas trio automatically steals focus with their songs. And they're not even onstage.

If he can just cut some of the easy lunges for laughter that are littered everywhere, Eckert would have a truly timeless satire with Shakespeare for the Modern Man, Lesson 1: Macbeth. Savoring Shakespearean language (which is what reading always allows you to do, but performance permits only occasionally) is eternal precisely because we are still catching up with the Bard's original blend of wit, existential ponderings, and exalted wordplay. In a streamlined form, Eckert's piece would allow us, if not exactly to leapfrog ahead, then at least to play chicken with some confidence.

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Jimmy Fowler