Saturday, November 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

New York Review: MACBETH

New York Review: MACBETH

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By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

 

An outrageous, exhausting, thrilling tour de force: Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth is both true to Shakespeare’s play and true to Cumming’s vast talent. The actor’s range, from sweetly smarmy Eli Gold on The Good Wife to sexy, fierce Dionysus in The Bacchae to the arch, flirty introducer of “Mystery! Masterpiece Theatre,” Cumming is an astonishment—surely one of the best actors working today.

The contemporary theatre loves to update/reimagine iconic plays for our times; often, with Shakespeare, this means merely the reductive trivializing found in yet another “relevant” Macbeth in modern dress to make a political comment (pick a country, any country) indicting the evils of tyranny, ambition and  profound moral error.  But in this production, the contemporizing premise is entirely believable as well as tantalizingly elusive: a man enters a grim locked-down psychiatric facility—institutional green walls, a narrow cot, a wash basin, a bathtub; there is a window through which a doctor and an orderly can observe him.  In silence, they take his clothes, his wedding ring (a particularly chilling detail, given the play), and help him into loose white t-shirt and pants and slip-on shoes. His hair is standing straight up, as though it is horrified.

As they leave him, he finally speaks: “When shall we three meet again?” And we’re off.

Cumming then proceeds to play all the play’s characters, changing his voice, his posture, his manner in some dazzling quick-changes.  His Lady Macbeth (playing on the gender issues of the play itself, “unsex me”) is particularly fine when the couple are in bed, and he flips from top (Lady M) to bottom (M), with the wonderful, wait-for-it moment when he asks about her planned murder of King Duncan, “If we should fail,--“ and she replies, expressing disdainful incredulity, taking off her clothes, “We fail.”  Even better is when, emerging naked from the bathtub, he shifts between the two of them by merely changing the position of his towel.

A wheelchair becomes a throne, an apple signifies Banquo, and three high monitors show Cumming’s face at grotesque angles to represent the witches. A superb moment is Cumming’s gorgeously heartbreaking Macduff and another is the terrifying conversation he has with his reflection in the bathroom mirror with, “Who’s there?”

And that is the great question, not only within the play as we watch a great warrior turn monster turn madman, but within the production. Is this unnamed man a criminal using the play as a self-flagellating exercise in guilt? Or an actor obsessed with the play (this may have yet another layer in the reality of Cumming’s career—professional debut was as Malcolm twenty-seven years ago). Or a suicidal lunatic whose torment (“sleep no more”) is the tormented/tormenting play?

It helps to really know the play before you go since it has been condensed and the Scottish accents are very thick and prickly. It would also have been better to see it in a more intimate venue—the Rose Theatre keeps nearly everyone too far from the stage. But why cavil: this is a major theatrical experience.

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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