Something wicked this way comes

Something wicked this way comes

‘Macbeth’ rises and falls at A Noise Within

By Jana J. Monji 03/31/2014

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A Noise Within’s production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is crafted well enough to give audiences an inkling of the ancient play’s potency, but it fails to supply the visceral thrills of other recent productions.

In a nutshell, “Macbeth” is the story of how Scottish General Macbeth (Elijah Alexander) meets three witches (Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb) whose prophecy eventually leads him and his wife (Jules Willcox) to murder King Duncan (Matt Orduña) and crown himself king. 

That doesn’t last for long. Duncan’s son, Malcolm (Feodor Chin), escapes, and aided by a nobleman, Macduff (David DeSantos), returns to reclaim his throne. Macbeth has ordered the murder of Macduff and another nobleman, Banquo (Leith Burke), but only succeeds in killing the latter. Confident in a misleading prophecy provided by the witches, Macbeth is betrayed and eventually killed by Macduff, and Malcolm becomes king.

In Daytime Emmy-winning and Tony Award-nominated director Larry Carpenter’s production, the audience is primed for a bloodbath. We walk into the theater to see a burlap bag suspended by a rope over a large metallic-looking bowl. The reddish bottom suggests that the bowl is meant to catch blood and provide a feast for flies and maggots.

However, when the play begins, Susan Gratch’s set design doesn’t seduce us with the opulence of a castle. Nor does Jenny Foldenauer’s costume design do much more than hint at the tartans of Scotland. The men are dressed mostly in black suits with long jackets, suggesting both modern times and an alternative reality. 

In Carpenter’s version, the weird sisters follow Macbeth, listen to his every move, appear as his servants and spy on his downfall. This echoes director Rupert Goold’s 2009 version starring Patrick Stewart. In that production, the weird sisters are three nuns working in a hospital and appear outside of the scenes assigned to them by Shakespeare. In addition, Goold’s production is set in more modern times, suggesting the fascism of the 1940s.
 
Carpenter isn’t interested in linking his production to modern European history. His Lady Macbeth is introduced to us as a woman haunted by the death of a child who mourns in a way that suggests she’s mentally unbalanced. Carpenter’s Macbeth isn’t only haunted by his dead friend Banquo but by every character he has had murdered, all returning as white-faced and silent ghosts watching over his rise and fall.

While “Guiding Light” alumnus Alexander expresses the courage of a general, he doesn’t possess the emotional complexity of a man dealing with the issues of betrayal, ambition and a crazy wife. Alexander’s Macbeth and Willcox’s Lady Macbeth are portrayed as physically lustful, but they don’t exhibit the chemistry to convincingly pull it off. 

Alexander’s Macbeth seems unaware, or at least untroubled by his wife’s emotional attachment to her lost child, and Willcox doesn’t offer us a good transition between mournful mother and murdering helpmate.

The use of large puppet heads for the weird sisters while the actors stand watch instead of being “invisible,” as in the traditional Japanese puppet theater, bunraku, is at times awkward. The puppet heads don’t fit with the rest of the aesthetics of the production and aren’t detailed enough to capture our attention, although they are the brightest objects in the production. 

While the idea of a much-haunted Macbeth is intriguing, and the burlap bag provides a certain ominous suspense, those concepts aren’t fully developed and ultimately fall short of providing audiences with a cohesive whole.

“Macbeth” continues until May 11 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $16-$34. Visit anoisewithin.org or call (626) 356-3100 for more information.

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