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Project Macbeth

January 7, 2009

Shakespeare gets a fashion makeover at The Ashby Stage.

It’s hard to think of two manifestations of the western cultural imagination less alike than Macbeth and Project Runway. Yet the people behind Shotgun Players’ production of Shakespeare’s stormy tragedy saw fit to follow the performance on New Year’s Eve with their own version of the glitzy, fashion world-focused TV show. Giving an assortment of champagne-buzzed audience members the chance to see out 2008 by sashaying across the catwalk-shaped stage in their party duds, “Project Macway” was mostly just a bit of fun. The contestants ranged from a Derek Zoolander impersonator to a middle-aged woman who flaunted the paradox of Berkeley living by jangling the keys to her Prius while caressing the neck of her real fur coat. Despite the cringe factor, the bizarre fashion parade served the play well: As a comment on contemporary society’s obsession with youth, celebrity and style, Project Macway fitted director Mark Jackson’s bracing albeit uneven vision of Shakespeare’s play like a Burberry glove.

Written sometime between 1603 and 1606, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s fastest-moving drama and one of his darkest. Modern interpreters commonly couch the tragic Scottish thane’s rapid descent from noble heroism to murderous ambition in dungeonlike hues. Sets are often craggy, costumes monochrome-austere and characters emerge out of the shadows as if from the corners of a Goya canvas.

Jackson’s vision couldn’t be more different. Drawing inspiration from the play’s many references to clothing and the need to behave presentably at all costs (e.g. “why do you dress me in borrow’d robes?”) Jackson offers up a Macbeth that is as style-conscious as it is slick. Bright light bounces off the white, runway-shaped thrust stage. Modish, European-cut suits and nightclub-chic dresses exemplify the dress code.

The humor of Jackson’s production also belies the relentless dourness of standard Macbeths (which the drunken porter’s “knock knock” jokes in Act 2 usually fail to mitigate). Even the murder scenes possess a Tarantino-esque sense of fun. Instead of fleeing after Banquo’s murder, Kevin Clarke’s cartoonishly sinister Seyton spends several minutes punctiliously dabbing up bloodspots with a handkerchief. The assassin’s hyperactive housekeeping habit isn’t only grimly funny, but it also serves as a mocking precursor to Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot!” speech in Act 5. Ultimately, bloodshed rises to the production’s shiny surface like the smear of Banquo’s blood on Seyton’s face, which the murderer, in Clarke’s portrayal, ironically forgets to clean.

As such, the production derives as much if not more of its fiendish energy from the “foul” at work just beneath the “fair” façade. Clever casting helps to convey the duality between surface poise and the destructive impulses that exist both within the play’s central couple and society at large. From a purely physical perspective, it’s hard to imagine Craig Marker’s Macbeth reprimanding a kitten for using the castle’s tapestries as scratching posts, let along alone committing regicide. I, for one, couldn’t erase from my mind memories of the genial, toothy, blonde-mopped actor playing Edward Luton, the plummy, English charmer in ACT’s 2007 production of Somerset Maugham’s social comedy The Circle. Meanwhile, Blythe Foster’s pretty, porcelain doll features and the soft chiffon and silk outfits offset Lady Macbeth’s barefaced cruelty and maniacal lust for power. Together, the couple perfectly embodies Macbeth’s assertion at the end of Act I: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show: False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”

Patrick Bateman, the designer label-obsessed psychopath at the center of American Psycho, would probably offer himself the same advice. Jackson’s take on Macbeth bares a strong thematic resemblance to Brett Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel. As in the book, which was banned in some countries for its unmitigated scenes of torture, dismemberment and rape, the production contrasts the city city-slicker banality of the exterior world with a hell-raising internal life. Jackson and his partners in crime wallow in a remarkably convincing bloodbath – no small feat for the stage. The merciless choreography and extremely realistic wounds render the deaths of Banquo and Lady Macduff particularly chilling. Fueled by Jackson’s drive for economy (which, among other things, excises the parade of phantoms from Act 4, Scene 1 and conflates the three witches into a single role, played by Zehra Berkman) the production burns along with the same delusional energy of Ellis’ thriller to the point where we’re not sure which is sicker: Macbeth and Bateman or the societies in which they live out their agitated fantasies.

Troublingly, I’m not convinced that the director and his collaborators are sure either. Marker makes for an endearingly youthful Macbeth, yet his outer life seems as tortured as his inner one. Jackson’s use of a sudden blackout and white follow-spot pointed at Marker’s face during Macbeth’s asides and soliloquies heavy-handedly draws a distinction between the protagonist’s external and internal states. Accompanied by a pneumatic-metallic drone, the conceit is gratingly repetitive and sophomoric. Worse, it prevents the actor from using his craft to draw the distinction himself. Meanwhile, the theatricality of Lady Macbeth’s fainting spell after Duncan’s murder contradicts her otherwise perfect poise. Yet for some reason, the other characters on stage are blind to her obvious overacting. Foster’s Lady Macbeth blows her cover in our eyes, but she inexplicably remains a noblewoman surprised by grief to the courtiers.

As works like The Devil Wears Prada show, haute couture is an effective and oft used metaphor for a culture intent on suppressing its problems under a veneer of superficial luster. Jackson’s Macbeth scrutinizes this mania with gaudy boldness. For my money, though, it’s the oxymoronic vision of the Prius-and-fur-owning audience member strutting tipsily across the Project Macway catwalk on New Year’s Eve that sticks most vividly in the mind when it comes to making a statement about society’s conflicting impulses.



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