Fort Worth — Macbeth is always a reminder why Shakespeare remains a staple of theater repertoire: power that corrupts, a drive for self-preservation that turns into paranoia, secrets that leave traces — these are themes are no less relevant in the days of Donald Trump than they were in the days of Elizabeth I. (The same cannot be said of Shakespeare’s treatment of women characters). If we want to learn something about the ability of violence to distort the human psyche, Macbeth is a good point of departure.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s Macbeth runs in repertory with Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies at Fort Worth Community Arts Center Sander’s Theater, a good venue for the production since the intimate space allows the audience to study the facial expressions of the actors — an important element for a play of such psychological depth as Macbeth. Unfortunately, the acting is uneven, which sometimes mutes the power of the otherwise complex themes of the text. Macbeth can and perhaps should be terrifying, but I found myself curious but less than terrified.
Husband-and-wife duo Lauren and Jason Morgan stay with the original setting. In medieval Scotland, Macbeth and his Lady develop a plot to kill King Duncan and gain the crown for Macbeth.
Sonia Justl as Lady Macbeth gives the best performance of the show. “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood on him,” Justl asks, almost as an aside, about the body of King Duncan. The effect is chilling. And while I was left wishing that the women in Shakespeare’s tragedies were more than masterminds of violence, witches, accused adulterers — often driven to insanity — Justl hits cold ambition, cunning strategy, and descent into insanity exactly right. At the performance reviewed (on Feb. 15), Richard Stubblefield as Macbeth didn’t deliver his lines with the same unsettling conviction throughout the performance. The scene in Act 3 when he believes himself to be haunted by Banquo’s ghost was gripping as he lept from sanity to insanity, while Lady Macbeth tries to maintain order. But other scenes felt rushed, rather than unfolded.
The Weird Sisters, meanwhile, remind that even though Macbeth is certainly an internal, psychological play that deals with thoughts and themes that really do shape our mental landscapes, it is also a ghost story. The Sisters, played by Jenna Caire, Jessica Taylor, Margaret Vogel, with Cleo Lissade as their queen, are creepy and otherworldly, as they plant the seed for Macbeth’s downfall.
Some of the actors in supporting roles nearly steal the show. James Kazen as one of the murderers hired by Macbeth to kill his rivals, acts the part of a hired villain as if he were drunk, or perhaps very high, with slightly glazed eyes and a disturbing grin after slitting a throat. His portrayal is exactly as I imagine a remorseless killer to be. The porter, played by Jason Morgan, who is supposed to have become so drunk that he can barely open the gates to the Macbeth castle, plays the role as true comic relief. His request, “I pray you, remember the porter” stuck with me as I continued laughing as his jokes even after the play had concluded.
My primary question after seeing the production, however, was that the performance did not seem to go far enough in presenting Shakespeare that is “fresh and entertaining,” a promise made in the program notes. While I found Justl’s version of Lady Macbeth a compelling meditation on ambition without ethical limitations, the performance as a whole did little to push the boundaries of Macbeth beyond its traditional rendering. I am certainly not of the opinion that productions of Shakespeare require updated settings or costumes, but I did hope for some other qualities that might have marked the production as especially “fresh.”
Still, despite my question about the somewhat unfulfilled promise in the program notes, Macbeth strikes me as a timely production. Power that seeks to protect itself through violence seems all too familiar in 2020.