By John Quinn
In theater, there is a conversation between playwright and audience. They are linked by an interpreter, the director. He or she gives shape to the playwright’s imagery, putting it in a form the audience can grasp. There is an extra challenge when bringing an established script into production. How can the director best discern the artist’s intent, and in turn deliver the message to the audience?
The plays of William Shakespeare are now over 400 years old, and directors, more often than not, find themselves re-interpreters. There is a lot of fun, and more than a little curiosity, in discovering what exploration will uncover in a classic script. The script in question is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” adapted by Christopher Owens and directed Robert Arbaugh. Their goal, rather successfully achieved, I might add, is making Elizabethan tragedy resonate with millennials. Arbaugh and his collaborators at the UnCovered Theatre Company have developed a serviceable refit of a classic.
Aristotle wrote that the perfect theme for tragedy was man brought down by overwhelming pride. Macbeth calls that “vaulting ambition.”
In merrie olde Scotland, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis (Rob Arbaugh), is fresh from the battlefield when he harkens to fate – or here, The Fates – and to a prophesy that he shall become king. Goaded by his ambitious wife (Natalie Musgrove), Macbeth agrees to hurry things along. To seize the crown, he assassinates King Duncan (played, at different performances, by Chad Rasor or Eric Niece) while he sleeps. To preserve the crown for his lineage, he murders his best friend (Brandon Langeland). His bloodbath continues with the slaughter of innocents. Fearing for their lives, the king’s sons flee into exile.
But there’s no happily ever after possible. Remember the line, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown?” That’s one of Shakespeare’s, too, albeit from “Henry IV, Part II.” His lady lost to insanity, the guilty murderer is cornered by forces loyal to Malcolm (Elliott Kern), Duncan’s heir. The usurper is overthrown by the man he deeply wronged (Zach Bortot), and Scotland can enter an era of peace under her rightful lord.
Owens challenge was paring down Shakespeare’s sprawling five acts into a manageable, but still captivating, story. Score a win for the adaptation. Arbaugh had to pare a daunting number of “dramatis personae” for the small company. He is, by and large, effective, but must resort to casting actors in multiple roles. Yet it is hard at times to discern which character is declaiming the lines – but one finds it doesn’t matter much. As my sagacious English professor noted once upon a time, “We do not go to the theater to SEE Shakespeare. We go to HEAR Shakespeare.” So it is with “Macbeth.” Stripped of incidentals, a clear narrative emerges.
Some design elements created for “Macbeth” are interesting, but tricky. The staging retains the brutality of the original, but eschews bloodshed in exchange for some elegant battle scenes, choreographed by Zach Bortot. Designer Sarah Snyder uses heavy side lighting, which leaves the playing area in an ominous gloom. While this leaves the actors without expression to convey emotion, it heightens the import of the narration. In addition, a sort of vague alienation results when the characters are silhouettes, with fleeting illumination of an arm here, a face there. At times, the performance becomes eerily ritualistic.
The lighting also complements the overall esthetic, which goes beyond Steampunk, to what director Arbaugh describes as “Dieselpunk.” And what is that, one might ask? I would answer: gritty, militaristic Steampunk stripped of its rococo elements.
King Macbeth’s Scotland was a dystrophic, dysfunctional society. Reimagining the legend for our times is an ambitious project. Let it stand as a cautionary tale for any who forget, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
UnCovered Theatre Company at Rochester College, 800 W. Avon Road, Rochester Hills. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 4. 1 hour, 40 minutes. $5. 248-218-2091. http://www.Utcompany.wix.com