Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 9
 
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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Music/Theater

“LAY ON, MACDUFF”: Macbeth (P.J. Miller, left) and Macduff (Paul Bangiola) fight it out to the death in the Theatre Intime/Princeton Shakespeare Company “Wild West” production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater through March 1.

Curse You, Cowboys! — “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” Wild West “Macbeth” Features Gunslingers and Saloon Girls

Donald Gilpin

What are these thanes, princes, Scottish warriors, kings and queens doing dressed in bandanas, cowboy hats and boots, with six-shooters in their holsters, lounging around outside the swinging doors of the saloon? Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, notoriously cursed and infused with evil from start to finish, has been transformed by Theatre Intime and Princeton Shakespeare Company from the Scottish Play to the Wild West show, in an ingenious but uneven production currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Shakespeare’s comedies, in particular, have been subjected to imaginative updatings into almost every imaginable place and time. Though Macbeth (1605), based on Holinshed’s history of 11th century Scotland, would seem less susceptible to modernization, the rich political content, with ruthlessly ambitious leaders vying for power, has spawned a number of 20th century settings for the Scottish play, including a 1960s spin-off titled MacBird, set in the White House of Lyndon Johnson, and a production currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Patrick Stewart as a Stalinesque tyrant.

The Old American West setting here provides ample opportunities for villainy, blood, and violence, but this cow town lacks the politics, the hierarchical social order and the opportunities for cataclysmic wars and mighty power struggles — not to mention Norwegians, armor and shields, kings and princes — requisite to a great Macbeth. “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be … sheriff(?) … hereafter!” somehow diminishes the scale of Shakespeare’s grand tragedy.

Under the direction of Princeton University senior Dan Eison, this collaborative Theatre Intime/Princeton Shakespeare Company production is a huge undertaking and delivers many commendable results.

Mr. Eison has assembled a large undergraduate company of 21 performers, eleven male and ten female, with many of the women crossing genders (in reverse direction from Shakespeare’s all-male casts) to play men’s roles. In a text where gender ambiguities abound, from Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty” and her challenges to her husband’s masculinity (“Are you a man!”) to the mysteriousness of the three witches (“You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so”), some gender bending is more than appropriate, and many of the actors here are versatile and convincing in their gender crossovers.

Macbeth will run on February 28 and 29, at 8 p.m. and on Saturday, March 1 at 2 and 8 p.m.. For tickets call 609-258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets. For further information, visit www.theatreintime.org.

Overall the cast is energetic, committed, and capable, with all clearly understanding the complex four hundred-year-old poetry (and prose) and many proving quite skillful in communicating that language and a diverse array of characterizations to the audience.

J.P. Miller creates a strong, imposing, intelligent and interesting Macbeth. He is most effective in his soliloquies, as he struggles with the temptations of the witches’ prophecies, then with the tortures of his own mind, committing murder after murder in pursuing “the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire.” Mr. Miller is less effective in reaching the requisite intensity of anger, anguish and despair, as the tormented protagonist “sup(s) full with horrors” and suffers from a mind “full of scorpions.”

As his intellectual, highly articulate, “fiend-like queen,” the razor-thin and austere Georgie Sherrington is a worthy counterpart. This Lady Macbeth really doesn’t need to be toting a shotgun and shooting birds out of the sky in welcoming King Duncan to her castle in order to convince us of her determination and malice. Ms. Sherrington is powerfully focused and fascinating from the time she summons the evil spirits to help conduct her husband and herself into evil until overcome with guilt and desolation in her final sleep-walking scene (“Out, damned spot, out, I say!”).

Jackie Bella, Caroline Loevner, and Nadia Talel are powerfully striking and disturbing in living up to their billing as the Weird Sisters. These witches, who partake of the supernatural while at the same time ghoulishly trafficking in dead bodies and body parts, with the opportunity for a smattering of prostitution on the side, are mesmerizing as they lure Macbeth into their snare of wickedness. Costuming, make-up props, special effects, inventive staging and high energy, creative characterizations dynamically come together to make the witch scenes a highlight of the evening.

In the less colorful straight role of Malcolm, the heir apparent who must first flee for his life, then help to lead the troops from England to overthrow the usurping tyrant, Andy Linz plays a credibly stalwart, youthful and forthright prince, who, by the time he delivers his final speech to set things right at the end of the play, has convinced the audience that Scotland (or Dodge City) and its future are in good hands again.

Many others — including Lovell Holder, working overtime as King Duncan, a thrice-reincarnated corpse and the doctor; Peter Walkingshaw as Banquo; and Liz Dengel as Lady Macduff — have strong, memorable moments, but inconsistency of accents and acting styles prevents this ensemble from gelling.

Mr. Eison has cut the play judiciously and staged the action efficiently to keep the plot moving and to compress some twenty-five scenes into a two and a half hour time span. Some additional streamlining with less lag time between some scenes would help to enhance the dramatic tension and keep the action focused. Some of the Wild West contrivances enrich the action and interest. Others detract, sometimes eliciting laughter from the audience rather than the appropriate awe and horror. Some of the gunslinging, culminating in a massive final battle, makes a potent impact, but at times the cap guns make this look like a parody of both Westerns and Macbeth. A stronger directorial hand might have done some useful editing.

Costumers Kate Miller and Liz Butterworth have assembled an extraordinary (at least for New Jersey) collection of cowboy hats and boots, leather vests, and other western attire, which helps to create the world of this production.

Megan Thompson’s simple set design — a street scene in front of “The Castle Saloon,” with appropriate barrels, spare wagon wheel, sacks of flour and oatmeal, a brass spittoon and a balcony above — serves the purpose successfully for some scenes, but the specificity causes distractions as the action needs to take place in a variety of interior and exterior locales. Chris Gorzelnik’s lighting and Mr. Eison’s sound are adequate, but more isolated lighting could help to create some of the dozens of different locations in this play, and both lighting and music could potentially provide needed intensity and atmosphere for the eerie world of Macbeth.

So, all hail to Theatre Intime and Princeton Shakespeare Company for tackling, with energy and imagination, the immense and devilishly difficult Scottish Play. Though the Wild West motif does more to obscure than enhance the greatness of the play, this worthy production is successful in overcoming the infamous Macbeth curse and delivering some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines and most memorable moments with style and commitment.

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