Very early on in the Cal Shakes production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a large smear of blood stains the window and doesn’t move for the duration of the performance. This image is a brilliant touch, because of its powerful effect on the play’s rich metaphor. In “Macbeth,” there are very few heroes, and everyone who comes across this brutal, violent world is tainted. The blood which rests on this window distorts everyone who passes by, and no person comes out unscathed.
The production, directed in rich tableaus by Victor Malana Maog, has a good amount going for it. The richness of the venue, the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, certainly helps create an amazing ambience, because there is arguably no better playwright to watch outdoors than Shakespeare.
Although there are creative choices that err on the side of ineffective, especially when it comes to the production’s inability to raise the stakes in moments, the hallmark of a Shakespeare play, his rich, driven language, is intact here.
The generals Macbeth (a solid yet somewhat milquetoast interpretation from Rey Lucas) and Banquo (versatile performer Jomar Tagatac) have just concluded a vicious conquering of Norway and Ireland. Upon his return, the Three Witches inform Macbeth of three prophecies, the final of which will see him as King of Scotland, in line to follow the well-liked King Duncan (Warren David Keith, who also delights as the comic Porter).
The idea of becoming King is certainly an awesome thought, but for Lady Macbeth (a fantastic Liz Sklar), it is all encompassing. Her passion and drive leads to an acceleration for the crown. Murder and guilt follow hard upon.
There are certainly aspects of the production that work swimmingly well. Shakespeare’s meter is handled wonderfully by a very talented ensemble cast, words and ideas that are gripping, circumstances constantly in flux. And the magnificent soundscape full of richness by Elizabeth Rhodes creates a world of mystery and mayhem on a chilly Bay Area night.
However, the production suffers from some confounding choices and imbalanced performances. As Macbeth, Lucas is certainly one rich with skill, yet some of the most powerful moments he is tasked with come off a bit too small.
The first is in the way one of the most iconic moments is played – “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” In a moment where fate is drilling his inner psyche to act, these critical discoveries must be much sharper and stronger, driven by an all-encompassing torture and a circumstance that must overwhelm. It is a turning point moment that comes off too light, a need for flesh to be ripped away with torturous fire.
And in another, the choice to move away from a literal interpretation of a slain King Duncan at the feast is replaced with an empty chair to play against. Unfortunately, this choice doesn’t have the necessary, critical effect needed when we first learn that Macbeth’s mind is reaching a turning point. This is a critical secret shared between the audience and Macbeth, a secret that has all but disappeared.
The production’s technical aspects are mostly solid. Adam Rigg’s two-leveled set design has plenty of functionality, even throwing in some foreshadowing in the form of skulls downstage right. This allows Maog to create plenty of rich and interesting tableaus, yet unfortunately there are too many downstage obstructions, which force the audience to break out of their engagement with the show for logistical reasons. Too often actors are trapped and invisible.
The rest of the ensemble cast provides plenty of solid moments. As Macduff, Dane Troy makes wonderfully important discoveries about fate suffered by his wife, and how it now drives his mission. And Anna Ishida in dual roles, importantly playing a small yet critical role as the fleeing Fleance, does much great work to move a critical plot point forward.
While there are plenty of wonderful touches and a richness to Shakespeare’s language that the cast handles with aplomb, more unity is necessary for the richness of this version of “Macbeth” to come full out.
Much more metaphoric blood needs to be stained all over the stage.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Cal Shakes presents “Macbeth”
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Victor Malana Maog
The Word: Some confounding choices handcuff the production a bit, and more critical discoveries are necessary in order to fully unify this version of the Scottish play.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Through Oct. 13th
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (Off Hwy 24)
Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes with one intermission
Tickets range from $20 – $94
For tickets, call (510) 548 – 9666 or visit calshakes.org