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Alan Cumming dares do all in 'Macbeth' on Broadway

The actor tackles 15 roles from the Shakespearean tragedy along with a mental patient in a story that frames the performance. He finds it 'terrifying' but relishes the chance to try something that's never been tried before.

April 14, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Alan Cumming outside the Broadway theater where he is playing 15 parts in "Macbeth" in Manhattan, NY.
Actor Alan Cumming outside the Broadway theater where he is playing 15 parts… (Jennifer S. Altman, For…)

NEW YORK — Like world-class athletes, actors often measure their achievements by the degree of difficulty. Does a part require an unusual amount of range? An extraordinary number of man hours? Is it simply a matter of a chewy set of lines to get one's lips around?

By all these standards, Alan Cumming would be an extreme-sports medalist.

In a stage turn that will last nearly two hours, Cumming is set to play the part of Macbeth. Or, rather, the parts of Macbeth, as he tackles 15 roles from the Shakespearean tragedy, including the title character, Banquo, Duncan, Lady Macbeth and plenty of others (as well as, in a story that frames the performance, a disoriented mental patient reenacting the play).

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Starting April 21, Cumming will do this six times each week through June 30 at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, playing in every scene of "Macbeth." With the exception of two actors who appear occasionally playing mental-hospital staffers, he will act in every one of these scenes by himself.

"Part of the whole thing about this production, I am aware, is the chutzpah of it, and maybe the stupidity of it," said Cumming, 48, taking a break from rehearsal to have a drink at a Midtown bar. "The feat of it is why people are attracted to the show. Like, you know, maybe the car will crash?"

Cumming has just spent the last several hours tuning up that vehicle. Dressed in hospital scrubs in a rehearsal space across the street, he has bellowed and whimpered, contorted and vaulted, gone small and large to reenact one of the most challenging and well-known plays in the English language.

It's just a rehearsal in a nondescript room with directors and a few others following along. Yet Cumming offers a wildly energetic performance, creating moods that range from frightened animal (the mental patient) to confident rabble-rouser (Lady Macbeth) to vanquished former friend (Banquo). In the entire session, he misses exactly one line.

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"I mean, even the most tireless performer won't give 110% in a rehearsal," said one of the show's directors, Andrew Goldberg. "But Alan does. It's one of those 'Does he know there aren't many people watching?'"

Cumming — known of course for his Tony-winning MC in "Cabaret" and, lately, as the slick campaign manager Eli Gold in TV's "The Good Wife" — didn't intend to set any endurance records. Workshopping ideas with directors John Tiffany ("Once") and Goldberg (several off-Broadway Shakespeare productions), the actor simply wanted to try something different.

At first, the idea was to do a two-man show in which a pair of actors would switch off playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on alternate nights. But there have been, after all, many spins on Macbeth, such as all-female performances and the interactive mystery "Sleep No More," and it soon became clear that the boldest undertaking would have Cumming playing all the parts. The three of them came up with the framing device and the staging.

Now, after runs at Cumming's native National Theatre of Scotland and New York's Lincoln Center last summer, the show is coming to Broadway.

The production puts ambient props to clever use — a mental-institution gurney is used as a throne, for instance. And the witches will be shown on screens at the front of the theater. But the most important item on the stage is Cumming, who has almost no costume changes and largely evokes characters with his speech and manner. (The play's five acts are trimmed a bit, but the meat of it — including famous soliloquies such as "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" — remain intact.)

"It's a bit of a double sandwich because you're playing one person and then a second group, and the reason you're playing the second group is because of something that happened to the first person," Cumming said. He shook his head. "It's really a crazy bit of experimental theater that for some reason they're letting us do on Broadway."

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The producer, Ken Davenport, actually didn't see the show at Lincoln Center but liked the event feel of it. Still, it remains to be seen whether, in a culture of Broadway frippery, that is enough to overcome that this is essentially an avant-garde version of an already-difficult dramatic tragedy.

In addition to mastering nearly every word and gesture in a canonical play, the actor has taken up yoga, swimming and a variety of other training exercises. When Julianna Margulies, his friend and costar on "The Good Wife," heard Cumming was going to do this — it wasn't exactly a normal way for a TV star to spend his spring hiatus — she rushed over to ask whether he would be OK.

"I was actually worried about his health," she said. "I knew if anyone could do it, Alan could. But still."

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