One wonderful element of Shakespeare is how malleable his plays are to a director’s vision.
Shall it be a commentary on the present day, like Shakespeare in the Park’s recent Donald Trump-themed staging of “Julius Caesar”? What if the director goes broader, making universal points such as power’s ability to corrupt or our eternal need for love? How about a straight dramatic telling that engrosses audiences in the play’s plot and characters? The ways a director can bend the Bard are endless.
Sadly, Quill Theatre’s new mounting of “Macbeth” inhabits none of these possibilities. Under Jemma Alix Levy’s direction, we’re left with something of a paint-by-numbers “Macbeth,” her actors dutifully hitting their marks and saying their lines, but missing the all-encompassing dramatic heft of the tale.
In Shakespeare’s short and gruesome tragedy, Macbeth begins as a skilled Scottish warrior returning from battle. He soon encounters three witches who tell him that he will be named Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. When the first prediction comes true, Macbeth is filled with ambition to make the second become a reality, setting in motion a tale of evil deeds and grisly death.
Aside from the addition of women in some of the roles traditionally played by men, this is a conventional telling of “Macbeth” that largely underwhelms. As the Scot with eyes for greatness, Axle Burtness shows little of the natural connection with the audience that he exhibited in Firehouse Theatre’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” some years back. Rebecca Turner fares somewhat better as Lady Macbeth, but there’s little chemistry between them, and their scenes together have trouble finding their dramatic footing. Neither seems particularly weighed down by the guilt of dispatching others in pursuit of their own glory.
The show’s problems are most easily exhibited during its climax, with Macbeth and Macduff (Jeffrey Cole) battling for control of Scotland. The scene has plenty of swordplay, but it never comes across to the audience just how much these characters hate each other. Without the animus underpinning the scene, the duel and its final blow come off as more comic than dramatic.
Surrounding the leads, the ensemble does admirable support work, and newcomer Ryan Wilson shows excellent stage presence as Malcolm. The latter is best on display during the scene where Macduff learns that Macbeth has slaughtered his family. B.J. Wilkinson’s spooky lighting design fits the drama well, but the special effects of the uncredited sound design were too loud at times.
At its best, a staging of “Macbeth” pulls audiences into an absorbing maelstrom of ambition, violence and power. This mounting pulls little from the play’s rich possibilities and — without giving it away — the twist at the end feels gimmicky. Especially given today’s political climate, it’s hard not to yearn for a telling that explores power and the difference between governing and tyranny. S
Quill Theatre’s “Macbeth” plays through July 30 at Agecroft Hall at 4305 Sulgrave Road. For information, visit quilltheatre.org or call 340-0115.