Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“Macbeth” at SCSF – Flawed But Still Worth Seeing

Robert Shields as Macbeth with Daniella Tarankow as Lady Macbeth in the Southern California Shakespeare Festival presentation of Macbeth at Cal Poly Pomona

Robert Shields as Macbeth with Daniella Tarankow as Lady Macbeth in the Southern California Shakespeare Festival presentation of Macbeth at Cal Poly Pomona

The Southern California Shakespeare Festival, now in its 11th season, makes its home at Cal Poly Pomona. There each summer it utilizes current students in minor roles, current and former students behind the scenes, and Equity actors – both alumni and others – in the major parts of the great Shakespearean plays. As with many such enterprises this gives any production they do an interesting balance of polish and the up-and-coming, which can be either ennobling or a distraction.

In their new production of “Macbeth,” one gets a bit of both. Under director David Fox, there is an overt contemporary feel – an aura of timelessness – which both solves some costuming issues with ease, and makes the director’s point that these people are as addled by war as any population would be. Still, as is common with college productions, the female-heavy company leads to some creative casting which moves the piece out of the real and into the almost Brechtian realm of stretched suspension of disbelief.

Along the way, one encounters an equally various group of performances, ranging from solidly on point to over the top. In the end, “Macbeth” does indeed overcome all, but somewhat unevenly.

Admittedly, one of my favorite things to look for in any production of “Macbeth” has to be the use of the “three weird sisters” or witches. Here, in the persons of Linda Bisesti, Annie Dennis and Christine Menzies, they are played fairly straightforwardly, appearing and hissing their curses with considerable menace. Still, it provides what is needed. This cannot be said of Jasmine Mosebar’s Hecate, who so overspeaks her consonants in the tiny production space that one becomes more fascinated with her pronunciation than what she is saying.

As the tormented Thane who gives in to raw ambition, Robert Shields makes Macbeth extremely human. His passion for his wife, and his constant wrestling with the difference between his moral certainty and the enticements of the spirit world make him at once more pitiful and more humanly understandable than many who’ve taken on the role. This balances against Daniella Tarankow’s Lady Macbeth. She starts at a fever pitch, all but frothing at the mouth over the potential advancement of her husband. Thus even the calculated murder of Duncan comes with a seething overtone which leaves little chance for expansion, even when the character goes mad.

Sam Robinson supplies a solidly interesting Banquo, the saner head which never has a chance to prevail, and Nathaniel Akstin-Johnson, as King Duncan’s son Malcolm, seems at least initially to carry himself more nobly than his royal father. On the other hand Matthew Reidy’s Duncan is delivered with a stagey and artificial rhythm.

The absolute best of this production comes with Kris Dowling’s measured but passionate Macduff – reasoning and heartwrenching by turns – who brings a most human face to the terrible proceedings, and Will Dinwiddie’s silly, drunken, on-point Porter.

The entire production – the largest cast this company has ever fielded – is fitted into the tiny space of the Cal Poly Studio Theatre. There, set designer Sonia Fracasso has created a physical manifestation of the general flotsam of war, which becomes the backdrop to everything base and majestic. Costume designer Valerie Philyaw has pulled together a fantasy-modern style which mixes mens’ suits and 20th century fatigues with swords and battle axes. Lighting designer Clayton Fournival has worked with sound designer Spencer Saccoman to make the pre-production feel of the space full of foreboding, but almost too dark to walk through.

At the end of each “act” (Shakespeare broke it into 5, SCSF breaks it into two) both the intermission break and the final lines come almost as a surprise. This is less that any lines have been cut (they have not, especially at the end of the play) but that there is a lack of the flourish which would give a tone of finality. This is a pity, in that people who wish to applaud are not given the usual cues to do so.

In short, this production of “The Scottish Play,” as theatrical types superstitiously call it, has things to recommend it, but still has the aura of the college production: coping with occasional odd casting and performance/design experimentation which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Yet the program is ambitious. This show even went on tour during its first week, if only to Pomona’s School of Arts and Enterprise.

In the end one is generally glad to have seen a Shakespearean production which takes its material, and the intelligence of its audience seriously, even if it has its faults. This approach is frankly refreshing, when compared to those who feel they have to invent actions to overcome an audience they don’t expect to understand what is going on. I’ll take the former any day, even if it wobbles a bit.

What: “Macbeth” When: Through October 4, Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. with an added performance Friday, September 25 at 8 p.m. Where: Studio Theatre on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona, 3801 W. Temple Ave. Building 25, in Pomona How Much: $15 general, $12 seniors/students/Cal Poly faculty and staff Online ticketing: http://classicsupomona.tix.com Info: (909) 869-3987 or http://www.southerncaliforniashakespearefestival.org

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