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A Bleak, Hauntingly Detailed 'Macbeth' in San Diego

September 02, 1996|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Something wicked this way comes. It's Nicholas Martin's more-foul-than-fair staging of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" under the stars at the Old Globe Theatre's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

Just because Victor Garber, a four-time Tony nominee best known for comedy, plays Macbeth, don't expect a "Macbeth" lite. Garber's ambitious thane gets hardly a solitary chuckle out of his spiral into tragedy. Nor do he and Joan McMurtrey's Lady Macbeth get much of a sexual charge out of their scheming.

This is a bleak "Macbeth," but one that's remarkably well-spoken and considerably more detailed than most in its depiction of the dark forces and frightening visions that haunt the protagonist.

Too bad it's closing in early October instead of later in the month. It would make one of the most profound Halloween shows imaginable.

Jeff Ladman's soundtrack begins with a foreboding hum and the clang of bagpipes, which return frequently throughout the evening, wailing in witness to the destruction that's taking place, sometimes accompanied by the boom of timpani.

The three weird sisters play a bigger role in the proceedings than is often the case. Near the top, they appear to slice a snake in half. Later, they're the impresarios of a spook show that's often cut or reduced in less well-endowed productions, joined onstage by the often-absent Hecate and by a series of apparitions that culminates in the parade of Banquo's sons laying claim to the crown, much to Macbeth's distress.

The terrible trio of witches even appears in the background in Macbeth's final scene. His climactic battle with Macduff is staged so that he has Macduff at his mercy but lets him go, so cocky is he about his invincibility. Big mistake. Macduff slaughters Macbeth, front and center.

After Macbeth's head is hoisted on a stake and the survivors have celebrated, the witches come forward to claim the head and toss it into the same pit that has previously served as their caldron and as the port of entry for the ghosts they summoned. Score one for the underworld.

All this gloom and horror could become a bit thick, but Martin understands that "Macbeth," the swiftest of Shakespeare's tragedies, must move. He maintains a brisk pace, assisted by the mobility of Ralph Funicello's walls and staircases.

It also helps that Garber looks quite guileless in public. His clear, almost boyish countenance would hardly lead someone to suspect him of treachery. In private, we hear him wrestling with his will, and it's a convincing struggle. We can't quite tell where he went awry, but he wasn't born to be bad.

Maybe it happened on the day he met his bride. McMurtrey's Lady Macbeth has the sort of plastic smile in public that looks a bit phony. When she first reads Macbeth's account of his meeting with the three sisters, her right hand quivers in anticipation of the power that seems imminent.

*

There is only one misstep in the staging--when King Duncan (Richard Easton, who plays three other roles with clean delineation and wonderful spirit) announces that his son Malcolm will be the Prince of Cumberland, thereby disappointing Macbeth. Duncan delivers this news while clasping the hands of Macbeth and Banquo as if the three of them are about to take a curtain call. They're not even facing Malcolm. It's an unnecessary and unlikely underlining of the irony.

Except for the occasional airplane buzz, the alfresco venue enhances "Macbeth," which refers several times to the stars, to the way they can hide their fires and cast a pall of darkness over the world. The big trees in back of the stage also play a role at a critical moment in Kenneth Posner's lighting, as Macbeth's fateful date with the irrepressible Birnam Wood approaches.

The light on these trees almost appears as the light at the end of the tunnel. But this "Macbeth" concentrates on the tunnel, not the light.

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* "Macbeth," Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 5. (619) 239-2255. $22-$39. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Victor Garber: Macbeth

Joan McMurtrey: Lady Macbeth

Vaughn Armstrong: Macduff

Ray Chambers: Banquo

Richard Easton: Duncan/Porter/Doctor/Dramaturg

Scott Ferrara: Malcolm

Henry J. Jordan: Ross

Jonathan McMurtry: Siward

Katherine McGrath, Melissa Friedman, Lina Patel: Weird Sisters

James Joseph O'Neil: Seyton/Hecate

Paul Fitzgerald: Lennox

Erika Rolfsrud: Lady Macduff

Jay Heiserman: Fleance

John Worley: Donalbain

Rey Magdaluyo: Macduff's Son

David Mann, David Prentiss: Murderers

An Old Globe Theatre production. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set by Ralph Funicello. Lights by Kenneth Posner. Costumes by Robert Morgan. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Vocal coach Claudia Hill. Fight director Steve Rankin. Stage manager Peter Van Dyke.

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