Stage & Dance

'Macbeth': Innovative production falls just short of great

From raucous romps of gothic camp to emotionally stark whodunits of haunted intensity, there is no shortage of Halloween fare for this season's theatergoer. Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association is not alone in scaring up audiences this month, but it is the only Central Kentucky theater offering a classical treatment of terror, with its latest production of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The Bard doesn't readily come to mind as the go-to name for spookiness, but then again, among all of Shakespeare's work, Macbeth is unique. While plenty of his plays involve elements of the supernatural or the occult, none is as steeped in dark lore as "the Scottish play." Among theater circles, it is superstitiously regarded as a "cursed" work that has engendered its own litany of protective rituals, including the taboo of saying the play's proper name.

In Woodford County's mounting, director Joe Ferrell dwells heavily on the material's dark side. With an eye for the aesthetically epic combined with a craftsman's attention to fleshing out details that lend the story a human scale, Ferrell deserves praise for offering yet again another visually stunning and emotionally potent Shakespeare production. But while the show is, as a whole, a technically gorgeous and thematically evocative ode to the dark forces that can rule our inner and outer lives, it falls just shy of greatness. Why? A few distractions periodically break the spell of imagination, never halting the momentum of the show in critical moments but disturbing concentration enough to occasionally rattle the suspension of disbelief.

To put it another way, sometimes the more sinister elements of the show are a little overdone and undernuanced, and the effect renders the show a little too ... Halloweeny.

The roles of the three witches are granted considerable heft in this production, which generally works, like in Ferrell's decision to cast the first witch as the unnamed third bandit participating in the murder of Macbeth's friend-turned-foe Banquo. This is a nice touch that emphasizes the witches' willingness to meddle with fate, or perhaps to intervene entirely on its behalf.

Other times, it feels like we lose something in the translation between Ferrell's vision and its execution. For instance, the incorporation of birdlike qualities in the witches, who caw loudly or cry piercingly, underscores their connection to the natural and the supernatural worlds, but the effect fell flat on the small Sunday matinee crowd, some of whom seemed a little startled by the sounds.

By the end, the witches come off as a kind of hodgepodge of Halloween costumes, playing too close to stereotypes of generic evil rather than claiming a unique identity. Of course, this could be a simple costuming dilemma. It would have been more engrossing to see designer Jenna McGuire flesh out a more creative, less literal costume design that engaged the material with more sophistication.

Other design elements of the show are breathtaking. Todd Pickett's set and lighting work in magnificent, epic, tantalizing concert with the other technical elements of the show. This is the kind of show that calls for all the bells and whistles of thunder and lightning and red, murderous washes of dramatic color, and Picket delivers.

Another triumph of this production is Henry Layton's fight choreography. The cast performs agile, difficult feats of dangerous acrobatics so deftly that one can't help but marvel at the strength and precision required to execute them.

Adam Luckey is one of these marvelous swordfighters, shining in the lead role of Macbeth. As a professional actor, he is decidedly in his prime, handling the role with seasoned aplomb; one is able to trace his character development through a series of pivotal changes, from insignificant noble to king, from loyal warrior to murdering traitor. Eventually, his own guilt-ridden madness spurs him to a tragic fate, a violent demise that is as disturbing as it is fascinating to watch.

Samantha Doane-Bates is a formidable, if mismatched, choice as Lady Macbeth. Her final monologue, in which she feverishly descends into madness, is a moving testament of someone haunted by her own personal demons. But her post-intermission performance would be more enjoyable if we had more time on the front end of the show to develop an affinity for her. Instead she just seems mean, followed by extra mean, and we need to see that there was another side to her.

Lady Macbeth should be just as charming as she is power-crazed, particularly when she is persuading her husband to murder the king, a key emotional exchange that launches the fated trajectory of the play while shoring up emotional investment in the leads. The decision to take the sexual seduction route in those key moments, with the husband and wife sizzling up the stage in a frenzied lust for power, is a fair interpretation of the material, but it is levied with too heavy a hand, making Macbeth look dopey for thinking with the wrong organ while curtailing Lady Macbeth's few vital moments to seduce the audience as well. To borrow a phrase from chess terminology, they brought out their queen a little too early and didn't let us delve into her emotional nuance until too late in the second act.

The principle leads are supported by a talented cast whose sharp timing and nuanced characterization are traits of even the smallest role, such as Terry Withers in the role of the porter, who always manages to garner plenty of laughs, even in a tragedy. The supporting cast turned in innovative, inspired performances, like James Hamblin and Dmetrius Conley-Williams as Banquo and MacDuff, respectively.

While this production of Macbeth approaches greatness many, many times, there are just enough minor, distractive elements that keep it from being the production it wants to be.