Thanks to a production almost a thousand miles away, outdoor Shakespeare was trending as Oak Park Festival Theatre recently opened their al fresco “Macbeth.”
‘Macbeth’ Somewhat recommended When: Through July 22 Where: Oak Park Festival Theatre at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park Tickets: $15-$30; children under 12, free Info: oakparkfestival.com
While Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy of a Scottish tyrant took over Austin Gardens, “Julius Caesar” — the bloody tragedy of a Roman tyrant – was generating social media outrage in New York’s Central Park. Festival Theatre has received no such blowback. Still, it’s not hard not to glimpse parallels between the 11th century tale of Macbeth’s blinding ambition and disastrous rule and the political upheaval embroiling the country today.
Relevance to current events aside, director Barbara Zahora has crafted an uneven production of “Macbeth.” Some things work: The production has an ancient, tribal feel befitting the story’s medieval roots. Hailey Rakowiecki’s costume design is rife with animal skins and strange symbols. The infamous trio of witches (and their supernatural overlord Hecate) are eerie personifications of some long-lost pagan belief system, and you can see them ominously shaping the fates of “Macbeth’s” mortals throughout.
But while Zahora’s production is steeped in the eerie darkness of a world lit by fire and filled with primeval gods, it falls short in terms of effective storytelling. There are issues with pacing – “Macbeth” is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy (a good 1,000 lines briefer than “Lear”), yet Festival Theatre’s staging takes nearly three hours. The production is also troubled by jarring interludes of physical comedy schtick, scenes that aren’t funny and are completely at odds with the tenor of the rest of the production.Much of the time, the dialogue sounds carefully staged rather than authentic and of-the-moment.
That said, Zahora has made some intriguing choices for her “Macbeth.” The play has always been one of Shakespeare’s spookiest: The trio of witches and their infamously bubbling cauldron, the floating daggers Macbeth hallucinates (or does he?), the ghost who comes to dinner and reduces Macbeth to a raving lunatic – they all speak to the production’s otherworldly sensibility.
Zahora ramps up the supernatural elements by having the witches (Elyse Dawson, Savanna Rae, Mark Lancaster) show up throughout the drama, often in wordless scenes where their hovering presence seems to guide the actions of the play’s non-magical characters. When Lady Macbeth pleads to the gods to make her stone-hearted, the incantation becomes a summons. Zahora also has the witches playing the role of household servants and contract killers, a choice that emphasizes their diabolical, omnipresent powers.
But the witches don’t succeed in making “Macbeth” spellbinding. For that to happen, you need an ensemble that’s up to the demands of the text. As Macbeth, Matthew Fahey lacks the driving ruthlessness and blinding ambition the character requires. He often disappears into the ensemble, when he should stand out in stark relief. His pacing is off as well; this Macbeth speaks slowly, deliberately and carefully rather than with the relentlessness and possibly unhinged zeal of a man willing to murder his way to the crown. Fahey comes into his powers briefly toward the end. When he rages that life is nothing but a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing, it’s a moment that is indeed filled with such.
As Lady Macbeth, Melanie Keller is the play’s great strength. She’s believable as both a loving wife and a kingmaker who will stop at nothing to get her beloved husband on the throne. And in the iconic mad scene (“out damned spot”), you can practically see the demons whirling in her mind.
Zahora is less effective in her insertion of several (unfunny) comic scenes. There’s a bit of business toward the end where Macbeth is trying to get dressed for battle. His servant goofily manhandles the chainmail shirt, playing the scene like a subpar Three Stooges bit.Earlier, there’s an extremely prolonged bit of business involving a drunken servant who can’t seem to answer the castle door. It’s a one-joke bit that isn’t all that funny to begin with.
The problems with those scenes speak to the major issue dogging “Macbeth.” For all the machinations and bloodshed in the story, it never feels like there’s much at risk. “Macbeth” should be a spine-tingler throughout. Instead, it’s too often laborious and pedestrian. And not even Lady M can overcome that.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.