Spooky Macbeth is Regional Theatre in a Nation-Class Setting (4 stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
Macbeth by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company runs July 20-31, 2016, at the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts, directed by Martin Hutchinson, with stage manager Sarah Hankin, costume designer Beki Berliner, set designer Jeremy Weinstein, fight director Andrew Roberts, dramaturg Ian Chace, and composer Chris Devine. See www.hampshireshakespeare.com.
The night that I saw Macbeth, as Macbeth and Duncan confronted each other at the height of the play, a live owl swooped in. It came to rest on the branch of a tree behind the stage at the Hampshire Theatre Company, and sat facing the audience and admiring the show for a minute. Then it then flew off.
The beauty of their outdoor venue is the big draw to the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. There the Hampshire Theatre Company stages projects on a stage at the edge of a small wooden area that is "backstage" to the actors, but also where you see Duncan's troops cut their branches so that Birnam Wood can come to Dunsinane.
Behind you and to the left and right is a meadow surrounded by tall grass. You sit atop a hill and can see the trees as it slopes down in all directions. Then in the distance you have a panoramic view of the trees and mountains in the distance with the sun setting behind them. Last week in a review I raved about Double Edge Theatre's farm with seven stages including a real river and pond, but there really is no more beautiful place to hold outdoor theatre than here at the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center. Bug spray is provided and should be used. The metal chairs aren't that comfortable even for a short two-hour play, so bring a blanket or a seat pad.
This is regional theatre, so you can't expect a big budget for staging and costuming. But you can expect great heart from the presumably unpaid cast who are doing this for their love of the arts. So you attend to be entertained, but also to root them on, as you might root on the actors in improv comedy.
Of course you are familiar with Macbeth, which has many lines that have become famous, such as "What's done is done", "The grief that does not speak", "Something wicked this way comes", and "One fell swoop". Macbeth learns his own destiny from three spooky witches, to become King, and must decide whether to embrace it or reject it. Will his choice drive him insane? Will he win in the end?
Yes, it will, and no, he won't. This is one of Shakespeare's tragedies, but it has a happy ending of a sort. Have you heard the quote, "Behind every great man stands a woman?" Yea, Lady Macbeth goes insane too. Seeing it all heading for a cliff and exploding is like a huge train wreck. No wonder it's one of the most popular Shakespeare plays.
With a very small budget, and with the Hampshire Shakespeare Company producing three plays this summer, Macbeth being a run of only two weeks, you can't have the highest expectations. Though some of the supporting cast's acting was rough, every line was delivered without a flub. There was only basic costuming and scenery. The staging, by Jeremy Weinstein, did not reconfigure for scene changes. The costuming, by Beki Berliner, felt opposed to the characters at times, with the fool dressed in dour black, military men dressed instead as businessmen, and a medical doctor's modern lab coat conflicting with the old timey setting. The program lists no lighting designer, and the only lighting is the setting sun and, later, static ambient lighting. The actors have no microphones but need none to project to the small seating area in the huge hilltop field.
Although the first half of the play had weak moments, and perhaps was rushed with too few pauses to savor the emotion (as Macbeth leaves stage to commit murder, the next scene with Lady Macbeth follows too quickly), clearly the cast simply ran out of rehearsal time. This was proven by the powerful second half of the play which showed the potency of its leading cast and director.
Kudos to Ross (Julian Findlay) who shows a determined intent in every scene that helps the audience know the direction of the play. When Ross arrives with terrible news, you can feel it weighing him down, and at another moment after a tough scene, his Scottish accent brings some needed levity. I later discovered that Julian went to Harvard for theatre and previously directed Macbeth. So you can see the strength of even the supporting cast of this show way out in Western Massachusetts.
To me the height of the play was when Macbeth (Erik Olsen) meets the weird witch sisters for the last time. As he goes through a mental breakdown, the witches streak fingerpaint over the set, half naked Macbeth, and themselves, as though taking ownership of the world, signifying that destiny will have its cruel way with Macbeth. This is also signified by having them play the drums. Destiny's drum beat will not be stopped by anything. You are trapped. No wonder so many people in this play lose their minds.
Lady Macbeth (Emily Ditkovski) invites the cruelty. She starts to lose it in a very early and wonderfully haunting scene where she cries out for fate to bless her with cruelty, because only with cruelty can she win the prize she seeks so desperately -- for her husband to be king. The final stage fight, by fight director Andrew Roberts begins as a sword fight, but then it's a no-holds-barred brawl, brilliantly executed by Macbeth and Macduff (Chris Devine). I was genuinely shocked and gasped horrified by its brutality, which exactly sets the right tone for this battle between giants Macduff (enraged by betrayal and death) and Macbeth (also enraged by death and betrayal by fate).
In another scene, an actor in a confrontation backs up until she stands right at the edge of the stage, perhaps with her feet an inch over the edge of the stage. That heightens tension. Lady Macbeth's meltdown is deliciously deserved but also fascinatingly unnerving to watch with her frenetic energy. Kudos also to Kim Salditt (Lady Macduff) for her own meltdown with grief. Yea, it's a Shakespeare tragedy. Nobody is going to make it out of the arena unscarred. Macduff (Chris Devine) has perhaps the most hair-raisingly potent of the grief scenes, which sets up the murderous final conflict. Damn, a lot of people die in this play!
These creative and unique choices, performed movingly by a strong lead cast, more than made up for some flaws in the first half that surely would have been fixed with more rehearsal time, and would not have required a budget. The audience could have been given branches representing Birnam Wood and surrounded Macbeth in his being driven mad. The first appearance of the ghost could have been more startling, from being hid behind an object. The weird sisters aren't so eerie or inhuman in their first appearance as in their last when they horrifically play with a severed head. A few of the scripted off-stage murders could have been shockingly moved on-stage.
There's no stage magic when Macbeth says, "Is this a dagger I see before me?" and doesn't seem to be thunderstruck. "Who didst strike out the light?" comes without any lighting effect. Macbeth visits the weird sisters in secret, and could have been furtive, dressed in a cloak. The "beetle's drowsy hums" could have been related to the actual beetles chirping in the field. At times, Macbeth does not seem disturbed by the witches, which dilutes their power to disturb the audience.
But as I said, these are all bumps in a talented production that is well worth the trip. It's important to support regional theatre, and Hampshire Shakespeare Company is one of the best. Make sure to buy some snacks from the hidden table that supplies apples, berries, brownies, cookies, water, and juice.
I often wonder at the opportunities that go lost to people who won't travel for a show, even to a venue an astounding as this one. Driving back to Boston on a small road I saw a porcupine ahead of me! I stopped to watch it as it crossed the road. You can't get such experiences in Boston. Do yourself a favor and be open to day trips to explore all of New England's artistic wealth. I am happy to give Hampshire Shakespeare Company a full 4 stars, the same rating I gave to the much bigger Love's Labour Lost on Boston Common. They deserve to get more funding and to have the resources to flesh out completely their next production.
This play ends this weekend! Go see it!
See www.hampshireshakespeare.com and make sure to catch the Young Company Midsummer Night's Dream, August 12-14.