Review: Imagery and clarity elevate PICT staging of ‘Macbeth’

As the joke goes, anybody could have written Shakespeare’s plays because they’re just one famous quote after another. “Macbeth” is certainly like that, full of familiar nuggets, and it may also be the Bard’s best-known in America, from being continuously read in middle and high school.

But it has much to reveal in performance, and in this staging by PICT Classic Theatre, the chief attraction, counter-intuitively, is nonverbal: striking images with billows of mist artfully lit by Cat Wilson in fits and flashes, sometimes static like antique panoramas, sometimes moving in slow choreography. The large cast is generally competent in speech, but it is most wonderful when telling the tale in pictures

These images are reminiscent of William Blake or the later 19th-century neo-gothic illustrators, rich in sculptural, sepulchral groupings, with dark shapes touched by shards of light. Michael Montgomery’s costuming is mostly long, dark robes ending in bare feet, creating something like formal chessmen (perhaps that 12th-century set in the British Museum). The result is to depress individuality in the interest of communal struggle and revenge.

Overall, the visual impression is like darkness visible, with pools of murk lit by splashes of dark light, backed by a dark-reddish sky.

Under Alan Stanford’s direction, the defining characters are the three weird sisters, first encountered perched on designer Michael Thomas Essad’s stony crags, like pale-faced birds of prey. All white and black, with red-gloved hands, they are a creepy mix of virginal and ferocious, never more than when they come and go in girlish unison, singing what sounds like a childish folk tune.

But the show also boasts what we most want in Shakespeare, a good clear telling, particularly in following the precipitous rise and inevitable downfall of its tragic hero. This Macbeth even achieves some sympathy. He’s still an unstable husband, dangerous host and murderous usurper, but in the person of Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous leading man, David Whalen, he manages to enlist us in his bewilderment, panic and eventual resignation.

After all, we all have days like these, right? When just about everything goes wrong?

It goes wrong for Lady Macbeth, too. As played by a generally cool Gayle Pazerski, she may also compel some sympathy, having incited the killing of the king only to be left in the lurch, but she is a more pallid figure, without the stage time necessary for full development.

Others make fitful stabs at our concern along the way: Justin R.G. Holcomb (bluff Banquo, man and gory ghost), Patrick Jordan (stern Macduff), Luke Halferty (surprisingly engaging Malcolm), James FitzGerald (well-spoken Ross) and Martin Giles (comic relief and stalwart Siward). Making a brief impression are John Henry Steelman (faint, grandfatherly King Duncan) and Karen Baum (Hecate, entirely in red and black with a torrent of reddish hair).

Already one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, “Macbeth” has been trimmed to come in at about 2 1/4 hours, including intermission, although I  didn’t spot all the cuts. The result is a brisk telling, even with more mimed sword and pike play than I’d think necessary.

The relatively opulent cast of 19 plays more roles than that, although you inevitably feel (at Macbeth’s celebratory feast, especially) that a few more actors would be useful. Such are the difficulties of Shakespeare.

The chief difficulty, of course, is the language, and as I said, this “Macbeth” gets generally high marks for clarity. Only occasionally does that falter. It depends on articulation, volume, what way the actor faces and lighting. When the faces are so darkly lit, a default elsewhere makes it hard to hear – here, mainly when they turn their heads sideways or upstage.

Director Stanford has some unusual details for the aficionado, such as the bloody sergeant, usually a messenger, who is here found dying, and the use of Ross as the mysterious third murderer, who here purposefully saves Fleance’s life.

In the end it all comes down to Macbeth. Mr. Whalen doesn’t scale histrionic heights or plumb existential depths. A team player all along, he’s Macbeth as Everyman, helping to tell the tale without stirring us deeply, until, as the world closes in, he claims our sympathy, dramatizing the poignant bewilderment and loss that are the fate of all.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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