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August 6, 2001

'Macbeth' is no walk in the park

Shakespeare Santa Cruz excels at tackling the stuff of nightmares

By John Newman

Shakespeare festivals have started popping up in the summer like beach umbrellas. It seems to be the shortest path to some kind of cultural legitimacy for every shopping-mall suburb that can muster a troop of chardonnay picnickers on a sunny afternoon.

photo of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
Paul Whitworth and Mhari Sandoval, as Lord and Lady Macbeth, wrestle with their demons and their destiny in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Macbeth. Photo: r. r. Jones
That isn't such a bad thing, but for most of those summer audiences the comedies, or at least the romances, are the preferred program. After all, who wants to cast a gloom over a sunny summer day contemplating the jealous self-loathing of Othello, or Lear's imperious madness?

Fortunately for the body of English literature, Shakespeare wasn't necessarily in the business of whipping up literary confections for a summer afternoon, and fortunately for us, neither is Shakespeare Santa Cruz.

Of the four great Shakespearean tragedies that examine the nature of evil (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), Macbeth is the darkest and nastiest. Full of witches and evil apparitions, blood and madness, murders and treachery most foul; it is more the stuff of nightmares than an afternoon in a sunny glen; it is also the stuff that makes it a perpetual favorite with audiences. Somebody has to tackle the serious stuff, but it requires a full-spectrum company to take on this bad boy.

Macbeth himself is a monumental figure. No petty criminal, he is fully aware of, even repelled by, his horrible, murderous acts. But even with nothing more than his own perverse ambition as motivation, he can't stop himself. His nihilistic soliloquies are among the most poetic in all of literature.

SSC's artistic director Paul Whitworth plays Macbeth, and like Macbeth's own destiny, Whitworth's participation in this season's production seems oddly predetermined. He had no intention of playing the part when the play was originally scheduled, but when John Dillon, who had been slated to direct, backed out last December, Whitworth was forced to find a replacement. He called on his longtime collaborator, and former artistic director of SSC, Michael Edwards. Edwards has directed more SSC productions than anyone else, and his collaborations with Whitworth have been some of the most memorable. When Whitworth asked Edwards to direct Macbeth, Edwards agreed--on the condition that Whitworth himself play Macbeth.

Whitworth and Edwards have already teamed up to bring notable Shakespearean villains to the stage, including Richard III and Iago from Othello. But Macbeth is a very different kind of villain than Richard or Iago. While they are distant, sinister, and delight in their own cleverness and the triumph of evil, Macbeth makes vain attempts to resist his own murderous impulses at nearly every step along the road to his downfall. It is critical to the play that the character of Macbeth is presented with some degree of sympathy. Whitworth's Macbeth has a wonderfully human quality that brings the psychological effects of his evil acts, and his personal decline, into sharp focus. Edwards' direction and Scott Bradley's stark and ominous sets give Whitworth plenty of room to work.

In fact, Edwards makes good use of the whole theater, allowing the actors to enter and exit through just about every access in the building, and even staging some of the action in the audience. Tommy Gomez plays the porter with a great loutish charm (II,iii), staggering up and down the aisles, and even through the rows, to deliver his lines--a welcome comic effect after the taut, dark murder scene that precedes it.

Also notable are Mhari Sandoval as the ambitious, and ultimately deranged, Lady Macbeth, and Triney Sandoval as the brooding, indignant Macduff. Lauren Creager, Amanda Rafuse, and Suzanne Schrag are wonderful as the weird sisters slithering around the stage and cackling evil like a whole closet full of childhood nightmares. Electronic manipulation of their voices adds a very creepy otherwordly effect. In fact, all of Robby MacLean's sound design is very effective and adds a dark and disturbing dimension to the proceedings.

Macbeth, more than any of Shakespeare's tragedies, illustrates this season's theme of dark and light--the battle of opposite polarities--and SSC's production takes advantage of the play's polar possibilities in every way. Staging the play on the Theater Arts Mainstage allows for a control of the sets, lights, and sound in a way that wouldn't be possible in the glen. OK, it's not a sunny summer afternoon in the park--it's something much better than that.

Tickets are available from the UCSC Ticket Office at the Theater Arts Center; by phone: (831) 459-2159; or online. The Ticket Office is open daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through September 2.

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