Hours before the curtain rose on the christening performance of Macbeth at the new Jungle Theater, the actor slated to play Duncan took ill and had to be replaced by Bain Boehlke, the production's director. Those who remember the 1995 Guthrie production of Macbeth may recall the mysterious 11th-hour defection of Lady Macbeth that left the cast floundering for a replacement. The coincidence would seem to lend veracity to the myth that The Scottish Play comes with a curse. According to the lore of the stage, the mere mention of Macbeth causes sets to collapse, lead actors to drop dead on opening night, and theaters to burst spectacularly into flames. If the Jungle's traditional staging of The Scottish Play doesn't exactly catch fire, we should at least take comfort in the fact that it hasn't yet burned down the house.
The real curse of Macbeth, of course, is that it's almost never good. Onstage, the play generally comes off as either an unsatisfying political tragedy or a gothic melodrama with a brogue. Boehlke and company are clearly shooting for the latter. After an opening salvo of lightning flashes, the spacious new Jungle stage appears painted in dusty gray, flanked by narrow stairs that wind up into the wings. In the middle of the courtyard, bathed in spectral colored lighting, the weird sisters (Claudia Wilkens, Rhonda Lund, and Constance Crawford) are auguring Macbeth's doom. They, like everyone else in the Jungle production, look as though they have wandered off the set of Xena: Warrior Princess. In a noble attempt to conjure an 11th-century Scottish feel, the sizable Jungle cast is decked in leather, chain armor, and dirt. There is much whooping and waving of swords as Macbeth (Jim Stowell) arrives on the scene, recently victorious in battle against a rebellious thane.
Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare's villains and, curses notwithstanding, Macbeth has always been my favorite of the high tragedies. It is the apotheosis of Shakespeare's art and poetry, fueling the darkest impulses of the imagination. Even after four centuries, the play resonates with our cultural taste for vicariously experienced retributive violence and the machinations of the powerful. With its feverish pacing, abundant bloodletting, and assorted hauntings, it is the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster (I see Courtney Love as Lady Macbeth).
As demonstrated by the Jungle production, however, the spastic violence that makes Macbeth so spectacular just as often reduces the play to mere spectacle. Like so many stagings, the Jungle's favors swordplay and spooky lighting effects over the disturbing psychological subtext of the story. In killing the king, Macbeth is guilty not only of ingratitude but also patricide (recall that Lady Macbeth will not do the bloody deed because the sleeping king resembles her father). To experience the whole weight of the tragedy, we must feel a mixture of revulsion and empathy toward Shakespeare's nastiest couple; we must be at once attracted by their charisma and unlimited imagination while being disgusted by their horrific transgression of taboo. Rather than addressing the dark side of the play, the Jungle production tries to frighten with madness, murder, and magic. Let's face it, witches aren't that scary, and we've all seen enough murder to make the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children seem de rigueur.
Similarly underwhelming is the middle-aged Jim Stowell, who lacks the stature to make the Thane of Glamis both a tragic antihero and a repulsive monster. How are we to believe that Macbeth is a ruthless killing machine when Banquo, Macduff, or even Fleance--Fleance!--could apparently kick his ass from Glasgow to Skye? Macbeth is the simplest of Shakespeare's characters, yet he possesses an almost inhuman calm, an inner coldness that grows with the play's body count; by defying Christian taboo, he makes himself a force of nature. Stowell, dripping with self-loathing, plays him more as Hamlet: a tortured neurotic at war with his conscience. The result is a rather pathetic Macbeth; by the celebrated "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy, perhaps the most eloquent expression of existential emptiness in all of literature, we have no idea what is driving Macbeth. The speech does not seem to come in reaction to the news of Lady Macbeth's suicide or the cruel capriciousness of the cosmos. It is merely a few lines of poetry tossed off and left to wither in the dead air of the theater.
Carolyn Goelzer fares somewhat better as Lady Macbeth. Many scholars have theorized that Lady Macbeth's madness, aside from being the product of a tortured conscience, is a plot device necessary to remove her from the play before she dominates it entirely--the female threat must be silenced before the patriarchy can reassert itself. Goelzer is effectively serpentine but offers no sense of Lady Macbeth's dangerous potential. The sleepwalking scene, usually the tour de force of the play, comes off as merely unsettling, rather than horrifying. In addition, the Macbeths seem to have no marital rapport: Are they not the only happily married couple in all of Shakespeare?
Dressed identically in archaic armor and scurrying in and out of scenes, the rest of the Jungle cast is harder to fault. E.J. Subkoviak cuts an imposing Banquo (observing the actor's charisma and booming voice, one wonders if he might not have made a more convincing Macbeth). Even for a last-minute addition to the cast, Boehlke is nearly persona non corporeal as Duncan; the king is so innocuous that we hardly notice he has been murdered.
In a happy footnote, the actor originally scheduled to play Duncan is said to be convalescing nicely. Those who lack all superstition may doubt that this production is cursed, but one suspects that even with Duncan's recovery, the Jungle's Macbeth will fall short of greatness.
With considerably less toil and trouble, Huldufólk Theatre's staging of Largo Desolato breathes life into a play that is often considered a footnote to history. The playwright here is celebrated dissident and President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, and his translator is Tom Stoppard. With a sleek production and some fine acting, the fledgling Huldufólk company manages to fuse the didacticism of Havel's dystopian tale with the wry, evasive humor of Stoppard's dialogue.
Professor Leopold Nettles (Daniel Dunbar) is a philosopher with three problems. First, he is constipated. Second, he is under constant surveillance by a shadowy and malevolent secret police force, represented by actors flitting around the dark edges of the stage with flashlights. Third, Nettles has lost his mind. His visitors certainly give him just cause for worry. His wife Suzana (Kate Eifrig) is carrying on a conspicuous affair with his friend Edward (Steve Sweere). In addition to his personal problems, Nettles is hounded by two factory workers named Sidney (Steve Kath and Brian Merrick), who exhort the professor to get on with his philosophizing. There is also Bertram (Ainsley Campbell), who constantly assures the frazzled professor that "everyone likes you," and two seedy secret-agent types (Terry Flynn and Peter Ooley), who obviously don't like him and who want him to disavow his work and public identity.
Of course, with the fall of Communism, the protest theater of Eastern Europe might seem dated. Huldufólk's Largo Desolato is evidence, however, that Vaclav Havel is not just a courageous dissident but also a brilliantly mordant playwright. All it takes to light the fire is a few sparks from this promising new troupe.
Macbeth runs through April 10 at the Jungle Theater; (612) 822-7063; Largo Desolato runs through February 28 at the Cedar Riverside People's Center; (612) 827-4162.