REVIEW: MACBETH at The Denver Center

by Owen Niland

Shakespeare’s work has become a cypher upon which directors and designers impose a variety of concepts. Some high-concept productions I have seen or otherwise been involved in: Hamlet on a space station, Twelfth Night set in a 70’s disco, Richard III as a metaphor for Nazism, and a gender reversed Taming of the Shrew (I made for a terrible Kate). Do these re-imaginings work? Occasionally. What makes or breaks the production is if the design, casting choices or staging is done in service of the story Shakespeare created.

Ideally, concept informs upon the existing work, illuminating the story in a different light and providing the audience the chance to engage with the play in a new and exciting manner. However, if the concept takes precedence over story by imposing a new structure of its own into the existing work, then the soul of Shakespeare’s voice is lost to the new idea, and generally the production suffers.

The extent to which the concept, casting, production design and staging can overtake a production was foremost on my mind walking out of DCPA’s current staging of MACBETH. Director Robert O’Hara has created a challenging piece by pulling together an all-male cast, costuming them in S&M gear, utilizing a sound design relying heavily on electronic dance music, and staging the production in a highly stylized and complex manner with the help of the extraordinary versatility of the DCPA’s newly renovated Space Theatre.

The Space Theater’s new design and expanded technical capacity is on full display here. To say it is staged in the round does not do it justice – O’Hara uses every entrance in the space, including those above the audience and below the stage. The scenic, lighting and sound designs created by designers Jason Sherwood, Alex Jainchill, and Lindsay Jones, respectively, masterfully create a sense of space for the audience and add impact to the various stylized fight scenes and dance O’Hara meshes into the production.

The concept, I gather through the director’s notes, is that this the tale of MacBeth is being told by a tribe of futuristic warlocks to one another, in an effort to connect to their ancestors, creating, in effect, a play within a play. These warlocks take on the roles of the characters and in turn use their warlock “powers” to dazzle in their fight sequences.

Stylized is probably the foremost description of this production. The mixture of interpretive dance with fight choreography was an unexpected venture away from the swords, shields and daggers approach a more traditional staging would use. It was jarring at first to see how stylized the fights became – morphing an arm into a sword and “telekinetically” throwing an opponent across the stage with an underscore of thumping techno reads a little more Mortal Combat than Shakespeare. By the final scenes though, the artifice of the fight choreography drops away and you can marvel at the powers of the warlocks and the physical prowess of the actors intimating them.

Dede M. Ayite’s costuming contributes to this sense of the far future. Each actor is clad in a body-conscious Mad Max mixture of leather straps, form fitting spandex and combat boots. I enjoyed the costuming a great deal, however the polish to the costumes lent a more “club-couture” look as opposed to creating a sense of something decaying or refashioned from the remains of a prior culture. The makeup design incorporating tribal tattoos was also an ambitious undertaking. I did hope to see more of it – although I was quite close to the action the tattooing effect was often masked by the lighting or too faint to see in detail.

The cast here is racially diverse, which always is a welcome sight on any Denver stage; however, the pointed decision to not cast any women, was a misstep. Although actors Adam Poss and Daniel Kyri offer decent performances as Ladies MacBeth and MacDuff, respectively, their gender-bending takes on the roles, melding feminine and masculine sensibilities to the performances, fell short of creating a fully realized characters. Lady MacBeth in particular failed to resonate with me. The impassioned manner in which she drives MacBeth to murder their King and her subsequent descent into insanity were undercut by a sense of confusion in my mind – what choices would a woman have made in this role, would it have been more interesting to see a woman alone on the stage losing her fight for a place in a decidedly male dominated story?

It was the lack of focus on these quieter, more cerebral moments of the play that ultimately pulled me out of the show. In particular, the interactions of Malcolm and MacDuff seemed rushed, as if the production was striving to move on to the next major set piece or combat scene.

Because the show hits such highs in production value, the audience remains primed for the next epic spectacle and is unprepared to settle into Shakespeare’s intentionally quieter moments. This lack of connectedness within the production – between the futuristic spectacle and the more thoughtful scenes – makes this production feel like less than the sum of its parts. Will you be entertained and see a production with a unique voice? Decidedly yes. Where the disappointment lies is in the sense that that you lost out on further insight into the world of MacBeth and the delicate interplay the author creates between the characters.

William Shakespeare’s MACBETH plays through October 29 th at the Space Theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Tickets: www.denvercenter.org/shows

Box Office: 800-641- 1222

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