Macbeth (Peter Macon) and Lady Macbeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli) revel in his return from war, his new titles and the prophecy of the witches that he shall be king. Photo by Jenny Graham, courtesy of OSF.

Confused, confusing 'Macbeth' opens OSF season

The claim that you never see an entirely satisfactory production of "Macbeth" is commonplace. Gale Edwards, who directed the production of the Scottish play that opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's season Friday night, has said this herself.

This one gives us no reason to reconsider.

Edwards' new version — it might be called Fascist Chic — is long on production values but short on character development and the sort of nuances that might have made the story truly moving.

Peter Macon plays Macbeth as a bellowing bully. Yet the thing that makes the character in the script fascinating is that he is not simply a monster but a man who has a certain consciousness. He sees his own fall even as he plummets.

But Macon plays him as a bully boy, almost as if Coriolanus (or Aaron, whom Macon played in a "Titus Andronicus" directed by Edwards in Washington, D.C.) had somehow slipped out of his play, infiltrated this one, pushed the conflicted thane aside and taken over.

And there was something off, in an unsettling way, about the Lady Macbeth of Robin Goodrin Nordli, an actor I admire extravagantly. Nordli's character was a little hysterical. She seemed to totter, weirdly, almost at the edge of comedy.

For the first two confusing acts I had the uncomfortable feeling Nordli was going to do for Lady Macbeth what she did for Hedda Gabler in last year's production of Jeff Whitty's hilarious "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler." Nordli actually got laughs when she demanded the knives from her husband after he killed Duncan, and more laughs as she emoted after the king's death.

A couple of set pieces — the banquet in Act Three, scene four, the procession of kings in Act Four, scene one — were beautifully realized, but they seemed to hang suspended in their own spaces, oddly apart from the story.

Kevin Kenerly alone among the main characters seemed to be in the play I have read. In a complex characterization, Kenerly brought both power and pathos to a flawed but sympathetic Macduff, creating a believable arc from loyal comrade to feckless husband to grieving widower to implacable foe.

The witches are always a problem. Edwards believes they give Macbeth permission to do what he wants. This was underscored in Macbeth's dagger speech (which Macon hurried through) by having them offer him the weapons. Fair enough, but Edwards throws in confusing "young witches." Is this a nod to future cycles of blood and betrayal, or just what?

One thing this "Macbeth" does have is a great look. Scenic designer Scott Bradley has given this fallen world darkly gorgeous abstraction in a winding staircase and a (metaphorical?) footbridge high above the stage. The detritus of war, including rotting corpses, threatens to spill over the thrust into the audience. Costume designer Murrell Horton has clothed the actors in beautiful costumes, including some terrific-looking uniforms that will make you think of Nazis.

In this world, as in ours, tyrants like glamor. And this world, like ours, is shaped by violence. But you know your "Macbeth" is in trouble when the best thing it has going for it (other that Macduff) is its look.

It's as if Edwards tried to give the play the energy of a roller coaster, and the thing careened out of control. The scene in which the witches summon apparitions to give Macbeth key messages about his fate is done with some spectacular effects (which I'll not reveal here) that do not, however, seem to be of a piece with the rest of the fabric. The movement of Birnam Wood you will either relish as some neat stagecraft or dismiss as frippery (I relished it).

Edwards has said the play's dominant theme is equivocation, a certain contradiction, ambiguity or doubleness. I believe the dominant theme is over-reaching, the breaking of an absolute moral order.

Edwards has said Lady Macbeth is torn apart by inner conflict. I believe Lady Macbeth's psyche is a conflict-free zone, and that she exults in murder in the service of ambition without a quibble.

This take on Lady Macbeth plays into what I believe is Edwards' view that the play is a protest against violence, held up as a sort of mirror/warning. It was Nietzsche who first called this idea an "error," suggesting rather that something in us beholds Macbeth with a "hot draught of joy." That is the play's dirty little secret.

Edwards has at least avoided the temptation, unlike some contemporary productions of the play, to use the Macbeths' sexual identities to haul water for various post-modern causes. The one thing the production nails is the conjugal heat that enables Lady Macbeth to nudge her partner until he falls over the edge.

Unfortunately, so does the play.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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