Every high-school student forced to read William Shakespeare's play knows the story, but in case you don't, a brief synopsis: Macbeth is a soldier in Scotland who, heading home from battle, runs into a trio of witches. They tell him he's going to become king. Problem is there already is a king. Macbeth's velociraptor of a wife urges him to grow a pair of balls and kill King Duncan, the man standing in his way, and he does. Bodies quickly pile up as the increasingly paranoid Macbeth puts to the knife anyone who will prevent him from retaining power.
It's a perennial favorite with theater producers, but I'm not a fan of the play. Compelling but long-winded, there are a bevy of holes in the characterizations and motivations of its two leads, as well as plot contrivances that will raise the eyebrow of people who like their stories plausible. Granted, Shakespeare was writing before the advent of analysis, so what we perceive as psychologically inconsistent now wouldn't have been given a second thought in 1611, but today, more than a little of the play's inconsistencies bubble up to the surface when seen onstage.
Shakespeare Orange County (SOC) producer Thomas F. Bradac, in his last summer as head of the company, directs a visually modern yet solidly traditional version of the Scottish Play, but even in his capable hands, he's unable to escape its pitfalls. John Walcutt's sturdy Macbeth gives us a brief sketch at play's beginning of a good man suddenly teased with power late in life, quickly (too quickly, in fact) blossoming into an insouciant mass murderer. Walcutt sympathetically pleads Macbeth's case in the endless direct addresses to the audience, but giving the role a more cold-blooded arrogance would have made the character's comeuppance more satisfying. As Lady M, Evelyn Carol Case punches certain words in her speeches with an overconfidence that feels equivalent to mustache twirling. Few moments in her campy performance felt real to me, and the play's lack of a transition scene in which the social-climbing schemer becomes a hand-wringing madwoman made the resulting transformation less than believable.
The production really hits its high notes in several of the smaller roles: SOC regular Carl Reggiardo's doomed Banquo nails the dialogue with gentle levels of humor and emotional gravitas. His death scene and reappearance as a ghost doesn't work at all, eliciting laughter the night I attended, but it's an otherwise deeply humane piece of acting. Playing the eldest of Duncan's sons, Nick Reinhardt's commanding Malcolm is equally good, treating the dialogue conversationally so that he sounds like a real person, not a cardboard persona. Likewise, Craig Brown's brief comic turn as the drunken Porter is laugh-out-loud hilarious; Mike Peebler's MacDuff battles an unflattering costume but wrings a moving, palatable grief out of the death of his wife (Amanda Arbues, onstage too briefly). Bradac's staging of the Weird Sisters (Alyssa Bradac, Harrison Givens and Cindy Nguyen) uses them to strong effect, having them haunt the production throughout, instead of just the four scenes in the original play. They resemble early incarnations of NIN, their double duty as Gothic murderers in one scene creating a visually creepy (Marilyn) Manson Family.
For a play that reeks of death, the production is remarkably bloodless, no doubt due in large part to the lushness of Katie Wilson's striking costumes. Because much of the violence happens offstage, what we do see (the death of a child, a beheading, several stabbings) needs a certain savagery to be effective. That it doesn't in this production must be laid at the foot of fight choreographer Peter Greathouse, as his sword fights and murders are as clumsy and frisson-free as they come. And with a modern-dress setting, what's with all of the oversized weaponry? The phallicism of the blades makes sense in the climactic battle, but their use through the rest of the play just seems clumsy, as contemporary handguns would have been more consistent with the production's costuming choices. Eric Barker's stunning scenic design—in black, white and red—allows for levels and an effective haunted-house feel, its ripped and rotting plastic sheeting, dangling chains and drawbridge like something out of Hellraiser, its gaping vaginal entrance/exit painted a bloody, glowing red by William and Jennifer Georges' light design.
Talking with Bradac at intermission, he seemed relieved to no longer have to plead for money as he begins his retirement from producing. A badass with the classics, he has been doing this kind of work for 34 years; he says he's done all he can with it and is ready to move on. His desire to direct material that offers him a few more risks would be a welcome addition to a county theatrical scene routinely low on ingenuity and adventurousness. While he'll still be working within whatever strictures Chapman University places on him, I'm looking forward to his next step.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.