By Shannon Eden
Currently playing at the Echo Theater in Provo is Macbeth. Gasp! Yes, I said it instead of the traditional: “The Scottish Play.” Hopefully, the curse will stave itself until after I have finished my review. Set in historic Scotland, we meet General Macbeth and his comrade Banquo, newly returned from a victorious battle. On the road, they stumble upon three witches who prophesy the rise of Macbeth to Thane (Scottish nobility) and then to the throne, and that the posterity of Banquo will beget a line of kings. Such lofty aspirations are merely the stuff of fantasy, right? So think the duo until half of the prediction comes true. Here is where the cankering tooth of ‘what if’ sets in. A dead king, a murdered friend, a reign of tyranny follow, and the genius of Shakespeare takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of aspirations, greed, madness, and the ultimate question of whether destiny is a fixed sentence. Or do we, in fact, seal our own fate with a bloody dagger?
I am a newcomer to Macbeth. I love me some Shakespeare, but I have always gravitated to the comedies more so than the tragedies. Everyone getting married at the end sends you home a little lighter than everyone dying at the end, after all. So understandably, I was a little nervous for my first viewing of this supposedly cursed show. The Bard did not write simply, and his plays are not simply understood by the unprepared observer. Would I be one of those hapless patrons who is washed over and tumbled about in the endless sea of sheer language and poetry? Would I be the only one sitting in the audience, eyes wide with confusion, like a deer caught in vernacular headlights? A lot of that depended on the delivery. And I applaud the cast of this production. I understood what you were talking about. Consider your greatest review hurdle cleared.
The Echo Theater is located on a quiet corner just off of the main hub of downtown Provo, in a beautifully historic building. The stage itself is a good size for up-close-and-personal theater. There is a general audience area with chairs also placed up above the stage on a mezzanine and more on the sides of the stage itself. I found the layout a little odd, to be honest. I appreciate that often Shakespeare is enjoyed ‘in the round’ and this was a valiant attempt for the space, but oftentimes, the set pieces blocked the view of some of the actors during the performance. It detracted when all I could hear was a voice behind a black wall. Though this may not be a word heard often in a review about Macbeth, there were some fun interactions that happened with those sitting in the stage seats that added to the production. So, I guess it’s a bit of give and take with the seating arrangement. I will say, if you don’t want to be subjected to a moment or two of discomfort and complete disregard for the fourth wall, don’t sit in those seats. But if you’re up for a little squirming and a good giggle after, take a chance on something out of the box. The set, designed by Jeffrey Blake, was as simple as you can get, but very versatile and functional. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a few doors, some black paint and a lot of imagination.
The Echo’s production is directed by Kris Jennings, a woman who clearly knows her Shakespeare. It says so in her bio. But, the truth of that really comes from the way her actors perform Shakespeare. There are times, I will be the first to admit, that I got lost in all those very pretty words. But I always found my way back to the story because the actors themselves knew what they were saying. They were committed to their story and they pulled you along with conviction. Our first glimpse of the cast comes in the form of the three witches – the Weird Sisters, aptly named, played by Mandy Lyons, Esther Pielstick, and Laura Randall. They are pretty darn weird. You’ve probably been quoting them you’re whole life and never known it: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” Though I loved the eerie feeling that the trio brought, there were a few parts that I felt their antics ran long and lost my interest. I loved the casting choice made by Jennings to have a succession of age in the sisters giving the range of older, middle-aged, and young. I have to applaud Randall who, being the youngest of the cast, tackled a very heavy role and did so beautifully. There was something truly disturbing about her innocently creepy portrayal of the littlest witch that gives you the chills.
Macbeth, played by Ben Isaacs, and Banquo, played by Josh Brown, follow the witches to the stage and I enjoyed both of their performances. They had an easiness about their characters to start with. Isaacs’ portrayal of Macbeth was strong and his transition to madness was a convincing one. It was interesting to watch the change happen in his character. His speech about the dagger, just prior to his murdering the king, displayed a Macbeth almost hypnotized by the desire to fulfill the witches’ prophetic words. His gradual slipping of sanity was managed well. I felt that Brown did an excellent job of providing a contrasting character in Banquo to that of Macbeth, showing the audience what Macbeth could have been had he not allowed his ‘vaulting ambition’ to overcome him.
Duncan, the king of Scotland, played by Joel Appelgate, was voiced well, with a strong, deep tone, but I wished Appelgate had had the same strength in his stance and mannerisms as the two leads.
Mallory Isaacs (Ben’s real life wife) as Lady Macbeth demanded your attention onstage. Isaacs showed a very manipulative Lady Macbeth, ever fluctuating between whichever personality or tactic might win her objective. I especially appreciated her madness-induced sleep walk – very well done. Although, I can’t help but wonder at what made our heartless heroine suddenly feel a twinge of guilt heavy enough to cause the leap into insanity? A true tragedy should have ended with everyone else dying and the rest of the world having to live under the rule of the treacherous Lady Macbeth. Did I just hear Bill Shakespeare roll over in his grave?
Back to the players. Jacob Chapman as Porter, Murderer, Seyton, Soldier, Apparition – this guy can do Shakespeare. I don’t know how else to put it. Every character Chapman portrayed was wonderful. My favorite scene of the entire show was during the incessant knocking. Perhaps I just needed a smile in the midst of the madness, but his mannerisms and control of his lines were down-to-earth and conversed instead of delivered. Every. Time.
Amos Omer (Macduff, Sergant, Second Murderer) and Bryn Curry (Lady Macduff, Messenger, Lennox) rounded out the cast. Omer was a little overpowering as Macduff at times, but gave a strong overall performance. As did Curry, though I struggled to understand some of her lines simply because her diction wasn’t as strong and sometimes she spoke too quickly.
The biggest problem I had with the production was in the costuming, done by Cherie Julander. The actors were outfitted completely in gray, and – though it gave a dreariness to the feel of the show – I couldn’t find any other connecting factor to the characters, one to another, except for the color itself. There was no definition of time or place and gave a sense that, as long as it’s gray, you can wear it. With the cast being small, many actors portrayed multiple characters, and the monochromatic scheme also made differentiation between each character shift difficult. I did love the witches’ costumes, but wished they had draped to the floor instead of only to the waist. The trio was such an entity in and of themselves, I wanted to keep the illusion that they couldn’t be anything but the Weird Sisters. Seeing their pants and shoes on other characters caused a disconnect in the continuity.
For a first time exposure, I was pleasantly surprised with my experience at the Echo Theater. If you too have never seen Macbeth, don’t be afraid to broaden your brain a bit. Read a synopsis before you go as the program doesn’t lend much help, so you’ll want to have some sort of footing in order to really enjoy the show. (A good source for this is No Fear Shakespeare.) With a little understanding, you will be free to revel in the murderous tale of Macbeth, who should have read the fortune I got at dinner just before the show: Don’t trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you. Happy Haunting!
Oct 2 at 7:30pm to Nov 1 at 9:30pm
15 N 100 East, Provo 84606