Theater review: ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth may be one of William Shakespeare’s best-known tales, but it’s also one of his most challenging. Theater lore is full of tales of all the misbegotten productions of the so-called Scottish play, and theater legend tells of accidents, injuries and even deaths brought about by a play that is considered cursed.

Cursed it may be. More likely, the affliction of Macbeth is that so many modern productions take liberties with it. It’s relatively short, it has no confusing subplots, and maybe the pall of evil that hangs over it – all those witches and potions – makes theater directors a little nuts.

I’d be the last one to accuse director Alan Bruun – staging his final production for Mad Cow Theatre, the company’s 100th show and the end of its 13th season – of being crazy. But his decision to remake the play into a drama for only three actors robs Macbeth of its clarity and most of its horror. Three good actors are sacrificed, and the audience is left in the dark.

Cutting Shakespeare, of course, is nothing new. Nowadays most theaters can’t afford his dozens of actors, and theatergoers don’t have the staying power to last through a three-hour production. Orlando Shakespeare Theater and others have produced plenty of Shakespeare with small casts; Mad Cow itself did a Pericles with a cast of nine.

But, in Shakespeare, casting three people to play nearly three dozen is asking for a lot, even when a 2½-3-hour play is cut to an hour and 40 minutes. Even those who have seen a lot of Macbeths may have a hard time figuring out who is who. And those who don’t already know the story are apt to be lost.

Part of the problem is the starkness of Bruun’s production, in which the three actors (Bobbie Bell, Michael Sapp and Sophia Wise) are dressed completely in black and use only one prop – a crown – to help tell one character from another. Sometimes the effect is nifty: The dagger that Macbeth sees before him is simply another actor’s hand, and the cauldron is created when a small circle in the stage is removed to reveal a piercing shaft of light.

But without any differentiating costumes, it’s hard to know if you’re listening to a thane, a solider or a servant (and Macbeth has a fair number of each). More troubling, the actors don’t speak to be understood, even in Mad Cow’s tiny Stage Right. Bell talks quickly, in a vaguely British accent, and Sapp sometimes follows his lead. Wise’s voice is soft, and at times she whispers. The result is that you miss what they’re saying a good bit of the time.

For three very good actors, that’s odd. Bell has long been a stalwart in local theater; the much younger Sapp proved himself as a force in Mad Cow’s Superior Donuts earlier this season, and Wise, who is just out of high school, has authority and stage presence way beyond her years. But the script they’re using is so disjointed, with one tiny snippet of a scene leading to the next, that they’re not able to build their characters. You never see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth making their decision to kill, and most of the lesser characters are ciphers. Almost every subtlety of character is gone.

There are a few nice moments, as Bell’s Macbeth becomes Sapp’s and then Wise’s. Wearing the crown, Sapp has a kingly power, and Wise finds the diabolism in the usurper that the production too often lacks.

All too often, though, the acting feels arbitrary, even cartoonish, and the production itself a stunt. It’s a shame that what might have come off as a bold experiment is likely to baffle audiences more than anything else.

‘Macbeth’
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of William Shakespeare drama.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 29 (also, 8 p.m. Aug. 25).
Cost: $22 general, $20 seniors and students; pay what you wish Aug. 25.
Call : 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
Online: madcowtheatre.com.

(Photo of Bobbie Bell, Michael Sapp and Sophia Wise by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre).

An additional note:

Alan Bruun didn’t single-handedly create Mad Cow Theatre: That was a collaboration among him, Mitzi Maxwell, Trudy Bruner, Rus Blackwell and Dennis Neal. But Bruun, who is leaving his post as artistic director at Mad Cow this month, has directed 41 productions there, and he has chosen or been instrumental in choosing every one of the theater’s 13 seasons.

His literate, intelligent and often highly dramatic style has been all over many of those shows, as well as others in Orlando theater history: His productions of Assassins and Falsettos at the old Civic Theatre of Central Florida, among others, remain some of my favorites in the 26½ years I’ve been seeing Orlando theater, and I could add many, many Mad Cow shows to that list.

Alan and I have occasionally had our differences, and I know that his tenure at Mad Cow has alienated some in the Orlando theater community. But the fact remains that, under him, Mad Cow has become one of the very best theaters, and one of the very best theatergoing experiences, Orlando has to offer. I thank him, and I wish him all the best.

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2 responses to “Theater review: ‘Macbeth’

  1. I found the production to be just the opposite. The intimacy and subtleties of staging and script were riveting, and once I fell into acceptance of belief, it was fairly easy to follow the five main characters and simply enjoy the spear carriers as they marched/slithered/sashayed by. More than anything, the discovery of such a fearless young actor as Sophia Wise is worth the price of admission (I already love Sapp, although I agree he should stay away from the Shakespearean accent, and honestly I’ve never enjoyed Bobbie Bell as much as I did once he catches his rhythms in this production) and I hope she hangs around Orlando long enough to watch her flourish.

  2. Nigel Dorchester

    I, too, found the production a bit disappointing, although the staging of it was pleasantly unique. I knew, or course, that it would be presented with only three actors. And, though it was a rather a bold attempt, I agree with Ms. Maupin that a lot of the subtlety, which makes Macbeth such a wonderful study, is missing.
    Mr. Bell is a fine actor, and Mr. Sapp is a favorite of mine. I was not as impressed with Miss Wise, and felt that her stage presence was a bit lacking. I did think that her whispering at times was effective, and helped portray the diabolism that Ms. Maupin mentions. But I am well acquainted with the play, and did not need to hear the dialogue to know what was being said.
    I am sorry to learn that Mr. Bruun will not be staging anymore productions for Mad Cow. He is a talented director, and I wish him well.