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Theater Review

A Smart and Gory 'Macbeth'

This gritty production of Shakespeare's classic, from A Noise Within, is brisk, well-acted and benefits from Robertson Dean's complex portrayal.


You could think of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" as an older cousin of today's action film. Chock-full of evil plots, freak-show characters, steamy love scenes and bloody battles, it grabs theatergoers by the shirtfront and pulls them along at breakneck speed.

This sense of breathless adventure is especially pronounced in the production that launches A Noise Within's 2002-03 repertory season. Edited so that it clocks in at a brisk 2 1/4 hours, this staging by company artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott is gritty with period atmosphere, reaching a climax so gory that it elicits a collective "eww" from the wide-eyed audience.

It looks a bit like "Braveheart," but, still more, it calls to mind Roman Polanski's brilliantly bloody 1971 film version of "Macbeth."

Shakespeare tells a cautionary tale about humankind's capacity for evil in his fictionalized account of an early 11th century Scottish nobleman. A valiant general, Macbeth lives in the good graces of his king until a lust for greater power drives him to murder his way to the top.

Europe was just beginning to pull itself out of the Dark Ages in Macbeth's time. The harshness of that life is evident in the grime that seems to cover everything on stage. A smoky haze fills the air, and the actors' faces and hands are filmed with dirt. Even when wearing elegant fabrics in their grand banquet halls, these people are never entirely clean.

Robertson Dean is a fascinatingly complex Macbeth--part strapping, handsome action hero, part sensitive, tortured soul. Strong as he seems, he is powerless to resist temptation, especially by Julia Coffey's ravishing Lady Macbeth. The ecstasy of their coupling after the king's murder is as sexy as it is horrifying.

The witches (Jill Hill, David Fenner and Marnie Crossen) who shadow Macbeth are dusted white, giving them a ghostly pallor that looks especially spooky when they're peering out from a supernaturally lighted cave or hovering over their glowing caldron. In a fun twist, they materialize at Macbeth's banquet to conjure the bloody vision of the murdered Banquo (Stephen Rockwell) that gives Macbeth--along with the audience-- such a start.

Dean's musical baritone is one of the production's chief delights, and it's at its richest during the "Out, out, brief candle" speech. He almost seems to be singing a mournful art song in reaction to Lady Macbeth's death. Moments later, he's so swelled with arrogance that he can't imagine his demise at the hands of the raging, grief-stricken Macduff (Brian McGovern).

The downfall has been foreshadowed in Michael C. Smith's set design, which perches Macbeth's throne atop a pile of dying embers that soon will turn to dust.

Los Angeles has seen more innovative "Macbeths," including the one so artfully rendered over the summer by Sacred Fools. But A Noise Within's production is intelligently staged and beautifully acted--and now and again, it really sets the heart pumping.

"Macbeth," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Oct. 13, Nov. 10 and 24, 2 and 7 p.m.; Nov. 9, 2 and 8 p.m.; Oct. 16, 17 and Nov. 13, 14, 27, 29 and 30, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 30. $22-$38. (818) 240-0910. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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