‘Macbeth’ on Magnolia: And the curse goes on

Macbeth: Photo by Christopher Shiner  Macbeth (Lucas W. Adams) ponders his demise amid the witches (April Singer, Stefan Gearhart and Sarah Feldman) in Specific Gravity Ensemble’s production of “Macbeth.”

Macbeth: Photo by Christopher Shiner Macbeth (Lucas W. Adams) ponders his demise amid the witches (April Singer, Stefan Gearhart and Sarah Feldman) in Specific Gravity Ensemble’s production of “Macbeth.”

William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” has long been regarded in the theater community as bearing a curse on those who perform it. Some actors refuse to utter the play’s name (calling it instead “The Scottish Play” or “Mackers”). Others refuse to take part in a production of it entirely. By some accounts, the curse can bring death (Abraham Lincoln was murdered — in a theater, no less — just days after he gave a reading of key parts of the play to friends) or, at the least, can bring a very troubled, flawed performance.

Specific Gravity Ensemble’s disastrous production proves that the curse is still alive. Most of this production’s numerous problems, however, can’t be blamed on a centuries-old witch curse; the aspects I found most appalling about this production were done intentionally.

The idea of holding a Shakespeare play in a crumbling, old, debris-filled industrial factory in a decidedly unpleasant part of town (beside the railroad tracks at 11th and Magnolia streets) was certainly an intriguing one. Unfortunately, the reality didn’t match the idea. The area inside the factory that was designated for the stage was shockingly tiny and was surrounded by dirty, hard, wooden, backless benches guaranteed to numb the asses of even those with the healthiest of circulations.

The lack of gradient seating guaranteed that only people in the front row could see the action clearly, especially if they were tall (and they were) and you were short (and I am). The heat and lack of air inside the dusty, old factory was stifling, and many patrons found their programs most useful for fanning themselves.
The company called this arrangement “intimate.” I call it “uncomfortable.”

The discomfort didn’t stop there: Ear-splittingly loud sound effects and gratuitous “scary industrial” sounds were blasted from speakers that were far too close to the audience in this “intimate” setting. Additionally, the audience was subjected to unnecessary amounts of fog, smoke and — that eternal crutch of producers — strobe and laser lights, all of which were literally in our face. Like hosting a KISS concert in someone’s bedroom, these measures were highly inappropriate for such a tiny venue.

A series of television monitors played a barrage of irrelevant imagery, such as video footage of an airport’s electronic board displaying arrivals and departures. These postmodernist absurdities brought nothing useful to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment of “Macbeth.”

Given these overwhelming distractions from the play itself, it’s something of a miracle that the actors performed as well as they did, especially those clad in black leather jackets in the sweltering heat. From their pained expressions, I gathered that many performers knew it wasn’t working, but bravely soldiered on nonetheless. Some audience members seem confused by multiple parts being portrayed by the same actor, and at times this appeared to even confuse the actors. Several of them often looked uncertain as to whom they were speaking and what was being said. I was embarrassed for the cast when the comedic scene with the drunken porter brought forth nary a chuckle.

Christopher Shiner and Jennifer Poliskie easily stood out from the pack as Macduff and Lady Macbeth, bringing bursts of clarity to a production largely devoid of it.

The final fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff is expertly choreographed by Eric Frantz of the Frazier Historical Museum. Other fight scenes, however, are rather childlike and ludicrously staged.

The witches, while decked out in Satanic robes, come across more like Goth teens playing at the black arts than of the wizened hags they were meant to be, especially when they sing, “Double, double, toil and trouble” in a Wiccan singsong-y way. And Hecate and the spirits summoned were nowhere to be seen!

The proceedings were so chaotic, uneven and muddy, one would think each actor had been given carte blanche to do whatever he or she saw fit. Some actors clung to the original text while others strayed (whether by design or accident). Some adhered to the pentameter, while others ignored it. Some spoke in exaggeratedly pompous “Shakespearean” voices while others chose a dull contemporary mumble. Some dressed in period clothing while others wore modern clothing like hoodies. No actor made any recognizable attempt to affect a Scottish accent.

I’ve never walked away from a play with such a sense of feeling assaulted and harassed. Of course, there are many pretentiously “edgy” producers in this world who might chortle with glee that this is just the reaction they were looking for. I sincerely hope Specific Gravity Ensemble won’t become that kind of company, especially after the transcendent success of their “Elevator Plays” earlier this year. It’s one thing to push the limits and seek what Peter Brook calls “Rough Theater,” but this was truly “Obnoxious Theater.”