REVIEW: Macbeth (Lyric Opera Chicago)

 

Verdi’s "Macbeth" is a Beautiful Tragedy

 

32 Act Four, MACBETH pic12507 c. Robert Kusel

   
Lyric Opera presents
   
Macbeth
  
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by
Francesco Maria Piave
Directed by
Barbara Gaines
Music directed by
Renato Palumbo
at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)   
through October 30  | 
tickets: $46-$207  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If Shakespeare were a rock band, Macbeth would likely be the first track on the B-side of his greatest hits album. The classic tragedy about a power-hungry Scottish royal couple is certainly popular, but has never managed to reach the same lofty placement on the theatrical mantle occupied by Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

12 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2517 c. Dan RestI can understand why. For me, the title character always came across as a brutish ogre who stomps around in fits of testosterone-driven rage. You can almost picture him delivering his lines, as poetic as they may be, in a series of grunts. He’s like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Shakespearean world.

But Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth infuses the treasonous Scottish nobleman with a vulnerability I have never witnessed before. Perhaps it is because of the passionate singing, the low bellow delivered by performer Thomas Hampson, that allows you to really feel the emotions behind Macbeth’s words. Or perhaps it is that unique quality of opera wherein characters sing aloud their inner dialogue regardless of how many chorus members are on stage. Either way, this Macbeth may have a bold exterior, but there’s no mistaking that inside he hides a sensitive, insecure soul.

Although Hampson is billed as the star of the show, and he certainly delivers, the real standout is Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth. This woman is absolutely outstanding, with a stunning presence anytime she’s onstage. The amount of endurance and vocal strength required to sing her four arias must be a harrowing task. Yet she does it without ever dropping her energy. And although the production is in Italian (with English super-titles), Michael’s acting and vocal inflection are paired so perfectly that you know what she is saying even if you have absolutely no clue what she is saying.

Leonardo Capalbo, as Macbeth’s foe Macduff, executes an aria in the fourth act that outdoes all the other male cast members. Sung right after he discovers Macbeth has slain Macduff’s entire family, it is a powerful and tragic piece that is infused with real heart, mourning and rage.

Unfortunately, Štefan Kocán’s portrayal of Banquo. Kocan is not as impressive – he has a uniquely guttural voice that, while I appreciate its distinctiveness, serves as a distraction.

21 Nadja Michael, MACBETH DBR_3062 c. Dan Rest 18 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2666 c. Dan Rest
03 Nadja Michael, MACBETH DBR_2329 c. Dan Rest 29 Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_3218 c. Dan Rest 23 Thomas Hampson, Nadja Michael, MACBETH pic11478 c. Robert Kusel
15 Act One, MACBETH pic22287 c. Robert Kusel 09 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2463 c. Dan Rest

As you would guess, the Lyric does not shy away from spectacle. There’s plenty of eye-catching scenes throughout, including the opening which features not one but three actors flying through the air on cables. The set itself is towering, resembling a giant metal spaceship. Although it’s impressive in its scale, the futuristic look of the sleek metal seems out of place for a play in which swords are considered advanced weaponry.

Macbeth may be a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean a woman can’t steal the show. And Michael certainly does as Lady Macbeth. At the same time, the intensity of Verdi’s musical orchestrations brings unparalleled clarity to this Elizabethan classic, which – for all its action – really is about emotional tragedy.

For a combination of stunning spectacle and masterful acting and singing, Macbeth is the perfect production for those wanting to witness opera for the first time.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

01 Act One, MACBETH pic04030 c. Robert Kusel

 

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Chicago theater openings and closings this week

show openings

Bonbs Away! Bailiwick Repertory

Boys Life Gorilla Tango Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Circle Theatre

Draft Gorilla Tango Theatre

Plaza Suite Eclipse Theatre

The Second City’s Girls Night Out Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Visionfest 2009 LiveWire Chicago Theatre

 

show closings

Bye, Bye Birdie Northwestern University Theater 

El Grito del Bronx Collaboraction 

Honest Steppenwolf Theatre

The Last Barbecue 16th Street Theater

Macbeth First Folio Theatre

The Mistress Cycle Apple Tree Theatre

Sex With Strangers Steppenwolf Theatre

The Siren Song of Stephan Jay Gould Gorilla Tango Theatre

Ski Dubai Steppenwolf Theatre

Spinning Yarns the side project

Trignity Donny’s Skybox

Tupperware: an American Musical Fable The New Colony

Viva Che Latte Donny’s Skybox

What the Weird Sisters Saw the side project

Review: “Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw”

 Three sisters in search of a narrative

MacB and MacD and Banquo

Idle Muse Theatre presents:

Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw
by Evan Jackson and Tristan Brandon
directed by Evan Jackson

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Three SistersThe witches in Idle Muse Theatre’s Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw are certainly women on the verge. But on the verge of what, that is the question. Director Evan Jackson and co-writer Tristan Brandon have created a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, wherein the witches are the benign protagonists of the story. They perceive and pursue the events of the original play through visions and forces that displace the original narrative through space and time. The question is do they have any agency of their own or, at least, any agency that is clear and distinguishable to the audience?

Jackson and Brandon heavily depend upon the audience’s familiarity with the original play. They use the lines of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, only re-ordered as dialogue between the witches and other characters. I must say that, before this, I did not realize how much the original drama depended on the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language—and not simply in the pentameter of each line for each actor, as I had been trained, but also from character to character and scene to scene. All that is disjointed here–and it could be disjointed to a purpose, if such a purpose could be discerned by the audience.

MacB and Lady Let it be said that it takes audacity to put on a production like this; creators and cast can celebrate the risks that they are daring to take with a classic. Involving the witches as visionary onlookers and unwitting interlopers in the events of “the Scottish play” turns the tale on its head, compounds the evil that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are willing to engage in, and plunges the narrative into unremitting darkness. It breaks down the barriers of traditional Western storytelling–indeed, Western identity itself. It suggests that there exists no distinction between forces that influence us and the forces that we are in influencing others.

Jackson and Evans have stumbled inadvertently into Surrealism—the problem being that the operative word here is “inadvertently.” The witches are still following a timeline of their own. They do seem to make choices regarding how they will react to the visions they have seen. Sadly, too many times, the audience can lose the thread of the motivations for their actions or misperceive altogether that certain choices are being made when they are not. That’s not a good conundrum to throw an audience into. Tensions that the actors strive to build and release with a purpose, in the course of the production, are lost. The entire effect of the production comes close to disintegrating.

MacD It must be said that even a Surrealist rendering of this work still requires the training to speak Shakespeare’s words. Macbeth (Robert Negron) directs his final “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech to Morgan, the First Witch (Elizabeth MacDougald) with black futility and poignancy. Macduff (Bradley Woodward) effectively conveys the anguish at the loss of his family—no small achievement, when we have not seen it occur at this point in this production. But the dagger scene and Lady Macbeth’s (Stacy Sublette) sleepwalking scene still haven’t the consistency and power they would need even in the original. Other moments are truly inspired, such as the ritual the witches engage in prior to the end of act 1–you can feel the energy building in the playhouse.

Audiences should prepare for a challenging, incomplete, and uneven work. Can an argument be made here for potential—that is, the hope and promise of this play lies in what it could potentially be? To improve on it, perhaps the creators would have to resolve the question of what effect we can have, if any, against the darkness that surrounds us. Truly a question for our time, whether one does Macbeth in more traditional ways or not.

Rating: «½

 

Second Witch

Second Witch and Murderer

Review: Babes With Blades’ “Macbeth”

Babes With Blades Macbeth a sword-rattling good time

Review by Paige Listerud

Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) and Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) face the final conflict. They dare do all that may become a man in this Babes With Blades all-female production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth–from vying for honor, to scheming unholy murder; from wavering in the face of evil, to charging recklessly into carnage; from chafing under oppressive surveillance, to engaging in out-and-out rebellion; from enduring unspeakable loss, to succumbing, as one’s life drains to nothing.

Directed by Kevin Heckman of Next Theatre for this production, Babes With Blades is an all women’s theater troupe. Their mission is to provide women with stage combat skills, to expand powerful fighting roles for women in drama, and to undermine “the preconception that strength and power are inappropriate for women.” Yet their work also helps to preserve and update the craft and discipline of stage combat for all actors, which often goes by the wayside when theaters downsize casts and drastically cut scenes. Unfortunately, removing traditional battle and fight scenes from plays like Macbeth, while understandable for the modern, minimalist, or cash-strapped production, can have the unwanted effect of diminishing the gravitas of the characters’ choices.

Throughout history, women have fought and participated in battle, often donning men’s clothing to get into military service. Theater history also has its famous women warriors, such as Esme Beringer and Ella Hattan, aka Jaguarina. Staging the traditional combat scenes places physical demands upon actors that few may be prepared for today. To speak one’s part is one thing, to speak it after a full scene of running around, swinging a sword, is quite another. “Most of these women have been with the troupe for years,” said Delia Ford (Duncan), when I asked about getting into shape for the play. “But I’ve just come out of retirement, so I really felt it.”

Murderer (Stephanie Repin) and Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) struggle to the death. The other challenge for companies like these is finding the theater space that will support battle. La Costa is a little hole-in-the-wall theater that one could walk by but for the sandwich-board sign demarking its location, but it has enough stage area plus plenty of routes for exits and entrances. The troupe rushed to find it in 48 hours after losing their previous theater space in Pilsen.

Very likely, what teamwork was needed to produce these battle scenes has strengthened the cohesiveness of this ensemble cast. In fact, their collective paranoia under Macbeth’s gory, volatile regime is performed so convincingly that, by the time we see Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) at Dunsinane, we feel the suffocation of tyranny as palpably as Hitler’s last days in the bunker. Here, the young girl players from The Viola Project are cast to greatest effect, as children dressed in uniforms and thrown into battle because Macbeth’s thanes have all fled to his enemies.

The most dramatic scene may be of Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) taking up arms to defend her home and child from Macbeth’s assassins.

Although, in the end, the showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) was so anticipated and so well executed, it received its own applause.

LadyMacduffkillsm What is the theatrical impact of seeing women fight for themselves, their loved ones, their country, or their ambitions? Be prepared to see, by contrast, a still forceful yet vulnerable and human Lady Macbeth (Nika Ericson). Unlike productions that suffuse Lady Macbeth with sexual and demonic power, both Ericson and the direction show a woman as much under the influence of the Witches (Rachel Stubbs, Melanie Kibbler, and Gillian N. Humiston) as her husband. After the disastrous banquet wherein Banquo’s ghost appears, during which Macbeth freaks out enough to brandish his knife in the guests’ faces, Macbeth slices his hand and pours his blood into a cup. At that moment, Lady Macbeth realizes she has no control over the evil she has unleashed. It is a moment of pure horror.

Furthermore, the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth potently render, in agonizing increments, their relationship’s progressive disintegration. This production does not overplay this couple’s sexuality, yet illuminates their essential, integral partnership, before, during, and after their downfall.

Kathrynne Wolf’s Macbeth is also vulnerable. While this vulnerability brings Macbeth’s character closer to Hamlet’s, especially when vacillating over murder, it differs by exposing his lack of a moral center. It is this lack of center, more than fear or astonishment, which prevents him from accosting the Witches just like Banquo does. Stephanie Repin, as Banquo, conveys the honor and judicious caution of a morally stable foil.

MacbMacdClinchsm The rub for this production remains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s most famous speeches. These are always troublesome challenges for every actor because they are, for lack of a better word, accursed by comparisons to past performances. They are operatic in nature. Like arias, the soprano and tenor are expected to step downstage and blow the audience away. That being said, the limited mastery of such critical moments makes this Macbeth an uneven, if exciting production. Particularly Lady Macbeth’s opening “invocation” speech–I question the effectiveness of the director’s choice to have the Witches take over whole lines of Lady Macbeth’s. Far more effective was having the Witches chant specific words within Macbeth’s lines, to emphasize their encroachment on his mental state.

The action and pacing never flags, however. One can be assured of a thrilling demonstration of women’s strength and ensemble unity in the delivery of this classic tale about the battles within and without the human soul.

The Viola Project introduces young girls to Shakespeare and trains them in both male and female roles. The young actors playing in this production trained in a stage combat workshop in 2006 sponsored by both Babes With Blades and The Viola Project.

Rating: ««½

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Chicago Theater – Show openings this week

Chicago - My Kind of Theater Town - cropped

show openings

1940s RADIO HOUR – Citadel Theatre

AURA – Redtwist Theatre

BAD HABITS – Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus

DISAPPEARING ACTS – Piven Theatre Workshop

THE GRAPES OF WRATH – Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

THE HISTORY BOYS – TimeLine Theatre

THE ILLUSION – Northwestern University Theatre

MACBETH – Babes With Blades

MARK’S GOSPEL – Mercury Theater

MUSING – Tympanic Theatre

OF MICE AND MEN – Steppenwolf Theatre

OLD TIMES – Remy Bumppo Theatre

PAT PATTON – Cornservatory

THE REAL THING – Saint Sebastian Players

THE SAUCE JAM – Gorilla Tango Theatre

SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE – Big Noise Theatre

THE WEDDING SINGER – Rising Stars Theatre