For most folks artistic director Ronnie
Bell’s Syracuse Shakespeare Festival is the heroic little company that
brings free performances to Thornden Park in August. Starting three
years ago the troupe came in under the roof, first at the Syracuse
University (formerly Dunk & Bright) Warehouse near Armory Square.
Facilities there were limited and severely hampered production values.
In the company’s third year indoors, the trend has turned sharply up,
refuting the fabled curse of the “Scottish play,” Macbeth. The
first improvement is the move to the cozy, well-equipped New Times
Theater at the New York State Fairgrounds. The second is in drawing
talent from nearby organizations such as Appleseed Productions and
Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company and Hangar Theatre.
The more useful space at the New Times
Theater allows this production to create mood and atmosphere before a
word of dialogue has been spoken. William Edward White, much associated
with Appleseed, has constructed a spooky set with four ominous white
columns, each with one raised arm, suggesting perhaps a gibbet. Just
left of center sit two large chairs, thrones that mock usurpers. And
right of center lies a rock-encircled cauldron, from which rise flames
and smoke. Meghan Pearson’s lighting design enhances the sharp changes
of ambiance and tone. No other Syracuse Shakespeare Festival production
has looked this good.
Marital strife: Nora O’Dea and Robert J. DeLuca in Syracuse Shakespeare Festival’s Macbeth.
Veteran area actor and director Dan Stevens favors a popular approach, implicitly telling us that Macbeth is
rousing entertainment, filled with witches, ghosts, bloodlust and
determined revenge. He has most of the players speak in elevated
American stage English although some have bolted into various British
accents. The signal to Stevens’ approach is the way he handles the
witches: He can’t get enough of them. Rather than have them wasted in
the opening scene, he has them interact and comment on much of the
play’s action, like a freelance chorus.
Much of the time the three attractive
women, Cathy Greer-English, Korrie Strodel and Sophia Beratta, smile
alluringly, their bare arms circling like a pole dancer’s. When events
go against the principals, their smiles darken, turning them into
grinning harpies. They are also choosers of the slain, like Wagnerian
valkyries, taking the colors of fresh corpses to hang on the extended
arms of the white pillars.
For the title role the company has
called up from Ithaca Robert J. DeLuca, an experienced player with the
Kitchen and Hangar outfits, whose standards are among the highest in
the area. More to the point, DeLuca has appeared in 14 Shakespearean
productions with six different companies, including the New Jersey
Shakespeare Festival. More proof is in the performance than the
DeLuca is most at ease with complex
Elizabethan syntax so that every phrase is immediately clear, and we
feel we understand even the words calling for footnotes in the printed
text. His Macbeth is darkly layered, with a subtext even more palpable
than the creature of the speeches. Once
ambition has infected him, he can never be at rest. He is unsettled
both by what he can’t get but also by what he has. Macbeth may not be a
character we’d like to be like, but DeLuca makes sure we pin our
emotions to him.
One of DeLuca’s few miscalls is to
scream some speeches in the last 30 minutes of the action, when
aggrieved, passionate declamation could have enhanced tensions more.
Upon reflection this sounds like director Stevens’ decision as several
principals also scream, not the behavior one expects in a royal
household, even in Scotland, a country perceived as redneck by
Stevens has lavished much thought on
portrayal of the goading, striving Lady Macbeth, the one character from
the action who is known to people who have never seen or read the play.
Nora O’Dea, the offstage Mrs. Stevens, takes great effort to make sure
she is not a misogynist cliché. It’s always a struggle to deliver lines
that everyone knows, like “Out damned spot!” and O’Dea makes them sound
almost colloquial, as if in an Arthur Miller drama and, surprisingly,
wins sympathy for what are her just deserts. Her subsequent suicide
benefits from the advances in stage lighting in this production.
Elsewhere in the large company Stevens
has been selective in new interpretations of different characters. With
Banquo, Macbeth’s sidekick during the first encounter with the witches,
Jim Uva delivers a surprisingly sunny and confident characterization,
which serves well to underscore Macbeth’s betrayal of him and the later
appearance of his blood-covered ghost at the dinner table.
On the other hand, there’s no need to
tinker with MacDuff, the avenger destined to confront the title
character at the end. Trevor Hill, whose experience with Shakespeare
dates back to his Hamlet for Syracuse Civic Theatre, is fully in
command of the man’s anger and resolution. Complementing him well is
one of the best performances in a smaller role, Christiana Molldrem as
William Edward White, the set builder,
has lots of fun with the Porter at the gate, where he is cited as “Bill
White.” It was of the Porter that the phrase “comic relief” was penned.
Taking advantage of his native portliness, White borrows more than a
little of Falstaff’s bluster and bumptiousness and lays on a strain of
lubriciousness, miming the kind of phallic puns Shakespeare wrote into
also in smaller roles are tall, pre-Raphaelite-looking Collin Babcock
at Donalbain, the murdered king’s son, Tom Minion as Duncan and later
as the First Murderer, and Mark English as Ross, one of the few cool
heads in the palace.
Barbara Toman’s costumes assume that
medieval Scotsmen should be dressed in tartans and kilts, traditional
Highland dress, an expectation many audience members might share. She
takes care that characters sport the patterns of different clans. It
feels churlish to point out that Macbeth was not a Highlander, a
disparaged minority in Scotland later romanticized by Sir Walter Scott
and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The jinx of the “Scottish play” is broken. Macbeth marks a step up for the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival.
This production runs through Feb. 27. See Times Table for information.