Kim Paffenroth (Iona College)
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival
(Now through August 26, 2016)
Director: Lee Sunday Evans
This summer, HVSF presents Macbeth in a doubly provocative form – with an all female cast, and a cast of only three actors (Maria-Christina Oliveras, Nance Williamson, and Stacey Yen) playing all the parts (at least, all the parts that have been retained in this pared-down version). Further, they do so with no props or scenery whatsoever – lighting effects are relied on for any suggestion of place. The overall effect is thrilling, emotional, and captivating. It is impossible to turn away from these actors as they work, and as an exercise in acting virtuosity, this performance works admirably. (As always for HVSF at Boscobel, as an evening spent on the banks of the Hudson at sunset, the experience is also nearly unequalled for enjoyment, on that basis alone.)
But a play is more than just watching actors pull of a feat – they are something other than circus acrobats, after all – and on many other points, the whole idea of this performance should’ve been thoroughly reworked. The gender of the actors is ignored as much as possible: the women are not pretending to be men, though the gender of their lines is not changed to female. They are trying to play characters so bare and essential that even gender would be extraneous, as though only lines and plot will be communicated from them to us. And, perhaps surprisingly, it mostly works: the genderless roles are not nearly as distracting as one might expect, especially in a play as martial and political as this one. But it does detract from the relationship between Macbeth (Oliveras) and Lady Macbeth (Yen) as all romance or intimacy has been excised from their relationship: though there are scenes of deep emotion expressed by other characters (more on that below), the titular couple’s lack of gender has made them aloof toward one another. The crucial Act 1, scene 7, seems not like a seduction (which I would challenge anyone to describe it as anything but), but a debate, while being blocked like a fight scene. However one dissects the couple’s dynamics or motives, this genderless version seems too desiccated and distant.
This is not to say this performance has not played usefully and thoughtfully with gender. The most striking moment is the “unsex me here” line (1.5.39), where the actor does not gesture toward her bosom, belly, or crotch, but anticipates the next line’s “crown” by pointing to her head. In aspiring to be queen, she calls upon diabolical “spirits” to remove her gender from her brain and not some other organ? Of all the play’s themes, never have I been so alerted to the use and misuse of reason as I was by this performance, and that by itself would make it a most valuable experience.
But far more than gender, the number of actors mars this production. Together with the lack of props or scenery, it makes the play sparse to the point of incomprehensibility. It comes across almost as more of a dramatic reading than an enactment: imagine the ultimate, limit case, if one had just one actor reading a play without trying to distinguish by voice or posture who was speaking any line, and this is barely removed from that. The effect is to focus the audience on the formidable skills of the actors, but at the expense of experiencing a play. A minimal staging would ask the audience to use its imagination. But whittled down as far as this one is, even those in the audience thoroughly familiar with the play were confused or frustrated by actors showing emotion over what looked, sounded, and felt to us like literally nothing; those who haven’t studied the play recently would be even more adrift and lost. This confusion was probably the greatest in the banquet scene (Act 3, scene 4) with Banquo’s ghost. With tables and guests and Banquo, the scene clearly and powerfully conveys Macbeth’s growing madness; with nothing but three actors (one playing both the ghost and the confused lords), one simply does not know what’s supposed to be going on.
As with gender, there are scenes where this minimal staging works brilliantly. Act 4, scene 2, the murder of Lady Macduff (Yen) and children was (other than the eye-gouging in HVSF’s King Lear in 2013) the most terrifying scene I’ve ever witnessed on stage. And it got its effectiveness from having no knives or swords or even victims or blood – just a long scream of “Murder!” from the actor. Stage fights are often the weakest link and make me look away with an eye-roll – they take one out of the experience because they usually look so fake. So the minimal version here was precisely the best way to keep us absorbed and not looking away from the horror. Again – virtuoso acting carried the performance through, this time aided and focused by a lack of props.
Finally, on a more minor point, but one that was visible in every scene: there really was no excuse for the costumes. The women were dressed in what I could only describe as regular street clothes for wealthy New York women. Oliveras’s outfit had a bit more of a Renaissance Faire vibe but not enough to be period (though it did therefore clash somewhat with the other two). If I’d encountered any of the women in a Cold Spring gallery or restaurant before the play, they would not have stood out at all. And that is the point: it’s not that the outfits were ambiguous or timeless (to better enable them to slip between characters) – they were just non-descript and “blah.”
To summarize: several of the provocative ideas behind this production led to deep flaws in the execution, but even these had flashes of brilliance that will stand among my most cherished memories of the theater, and the three actors delivered performances that demand our admiration and thanks. You will not spend two hours this summer on something better than this play.
Categories: Theater Reviews