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Trinity Repertory's Macbeth is flawed but powerful

By William Shakespeare.
Directed by Richard Jenkins.
Starring Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria.
At Trinity Repertory Theater.
Through May 3.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

Shakespeare's Macbeth is as entertaining as it is thrilling, forging a tight chain of greed, corruption, and ambition that bind its tragic hero to a fate from which he can not escape. Trinity Repertory Company's current production of the classic play delivers all of the horrors and delights present in the tale of the celebrated General's descent into murder and deception in his attempts to ascend into positions of power. The cast and crew of the Providence, R.I. theater company do suffer from some missteps, and some of their production decisions are questionable, but Richard Jenkins' somewhat flawed Macbeth is still powerful.

The set design, by Eugene Lee, is extremely minimalist, consisting primarily of planks, staircases, and walkways resembling a construction site far from completion. The lack of a concrete and definitive setting did focus attention on the actors and the themes they raised, but a more inventive use of the stage would have created a greater impression. The floor was constructed with several removable sections, which hid a large room used to set many of the play's morbid actions. The Weird Sisters who predict and influence Macbeth's path to tragedy enter from these depths, Macbeth (Timothy Crowe) often mentally wrestles with the consequences of his amoral decisions while dangling over the edge of this drop, and the climactic duel between Macbeth and Macduff (Jack Willis) takes place entirely below the stage.

Another very interesting result of the sparse set is that many of the props are used for different purposes in different scenes, causing some clever juxtapositions. When Banquo (Ricardo Pitts-Wiley) is stabbed to death by two hired assassins, blood spurts onto a curtain in the center of the stage. The stained curtain is present in a majority of the scenes that follow, and often Macbeth stands directly before it, providing a striking visual reminder of the violence that he has used to obtain his power. A table used for a celebratory banquet hosted by the new Scottish rulers, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Anne Scurria), is allowed to remain on the stage until a later scene in which it is overturned by the Sisters and used as a cauldron, while the chairs are thrown into the potion. The comparison between the dealings of the corrupt rulers and the curses of the Sisters is masterful.

Like the design of the stage, the costumes by William Lane do not suggest any individual time or place. The presence of Scottish kilts and sweaters, guerilla fatigues, and medieval gowns defeats any attempts by the audience to ascribe the play's message to a specific setting and give Macbeth's themes the universality they require. Many of the costuming choices simply refer vaguely to war and militarism, but one evokes a very specific association. As Banquo's murderers leap onto their victim, played very well by the black Pitts-Wiley, they wear Klan-like hoods. The very unsettling reference to the oppression of minorities by selfish and ambitious whites is perhaps a bit overdone, but is nevertheless brave.

In the lead roles, Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria give uneven performances. Crowe's Macbeth begins a bit too happy and pleasant, and only after his murder abruptly becomes manic and hysterical. After this sudden change, Crowe's acting is filled with intensity and energy, but too often he channels this energy in questionable directions. By the play's end this Macbeth is less of a dangerous psychotic than he is an innocuous nut. As Lady Macbeth, Scurria inhabits the role fully, providing a character who could very believably manipulate her weaker-willed husband. Scurria's Lady Macbeth demands the audience's attention with great ferocity and sensuality.

Scurria's performance is not the only facet of Jenkin's production which adds a distinctively sexual tone to the play. From the first scene, the audience is cued by the use of a cross-dressing man as one of the Sisters to watch for issues of gender and sexuality. In a scene late in the play, Malcolm (Ed Shea) discusses the attributes which a leader may or may not possess with Macduff in a very suggestive manner. While Malcolm lists "luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful," he repeatedly thrusts himself upon a nearby pole. But when he begins to talk of "justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness," he amuses himself with a small dagger between his legs. Malcolm manages to visually argue that Macbeth may not be making the most virtuous decisions, but he is gaining the most pleasure that he can from them.

By developing the links between sexuality, politics, and the tragic ambition of Macbeth, Richard Jenkin's production raises several interesting points. The acting, set and costume design do have their weaknesses, but the more apparent strengths make Trinity Rep's Macbeth gripping entertainment.