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“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: Info: (909) 869-3987 or

Witches Rule the Dark in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth”

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated "MacBeth" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated “MacBeth” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Like any big Shakespeare fan, I collect productions of “MacBeth.” This dark and cynical tale contains some of the Bard’s finest language, and its focus on the rapidity with which ambition can overtake ethics certainly resonates in our modern world. Besides, its mystical aspects provide a rich canvas for a good director. What form shall the witches take? How shall the superstitions inherent in the piece be incorporated into the larger play?

Now, at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Larry Carpenter has set his play in no time and every time, where swords occasionally compete with pistols and modern military garb blends with 15th century armor. In the midst of it all, three amorphous characters take on most of the “minor” roles – servants, doctors, murderers – when not embodying the witches who spark the madness. It’s great entertainment, with its aura of doom and its constant physical engagement with the audience. Even some of those scenes which often become awkward have a consistency of vision which pull them into the spookiness of the whole.

Elijah Alexander is MacBeth, making him a likable man, but a man of physicality – easily manipulated by desires, whether for his honor, his wife, or power – not a man to ruminate on consequences before it is too late. Jules Willcox steams as his lady, radiating a passion which moves MacBeth to murder, yet is not going to be able to control the resulting whirlwind which puts him largely beyond her reach. As these two collide with and repel each other, the rest of a strong cast rounds out the story of their whirlwind.

Matt Orduna’s solidly noble Duncan plays well against MacBeth’s lighter-weight sensibility. Leith Burke’s Banquo becomes the image of the stalwart, if admittedly somewhat ambitious friend, until he is undone. David DeSantos’s resolute, wise MacDuff, gradually working to right the ship of Scotland, echoes Duncan’s nobility and intelligence. Feodor Chin, as that odd combination of wisdom and changeable nature, Duncan’s son Malcolm, makes his vagaries almost make sense. Katie Pelensky and Theo Taplitz, as MacDuff’s doomed wife and son, create a moment of light and home in the midst of the terror.

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within's "MacBeth" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Still, it is the witches who give the play its focus and fascination. Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb create the rich foreboding and mystery which elevates this production, not only in their initial roles but as many other smaller elements – a necessity when spreading 28 major and minor characters among a cast of 17. They also effectively underscore how central the idea of the evil is to everything in MacBeth’s life, as, for example, they enhance the often badly handled “dagger I see before me” speech in a way both literal and spooky. Standout in all of this is El Gamal’s truly creepy androgynous servant, who can make one’s skin crawl as a complicit voice of doom.

Carpenter’s use of ghosts – not just that of Banquo, but the gradually swelling host of MacBeth’s silent, observing victims – emphasizes the sense of doom, and underscores the madness of the storyline. It’s a great concept.

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Their otherworldliness as witches is aided by Sean T Cawelti’s fascinatingly simple, yet creepy bits of puppetry. Susan Gratch’s facile platform of a set and evocative lighting set the tone of dark portents. Jenny Foldenouer’s fanciful costuming allows both the swift-change aspects of the witch characters and the quick definition of everyone else.

In short, from the consistency of tone to the layered portraits to the clever and facile use of witches, this “MacBeth” is a treat. By paring down the often overwhelming volume of persons onstage, the central characters stand out more brightly, and the point is more effectively made. In short, it’s a finely crafted production worthy of sold-out audiences, and a true pleasure for a longtime Shakespeare aficionado such as myself.

What: “MacBeth” When: in repertory, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 22, 8 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 12, 7:30 p.m. April 24, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 27, 2 p.m and 8 p.m. May 3, 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or

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