Ashland’s Macbeth: Positive Thinker

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If you’ve only ever seen plummy Brit-accented versions of Shakespeare, wait until you hear the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Robin Goodrin Nordli drawl “… by the all-hail hereafter!/ …transported beyond/ This ignorant present, … I feel now/  The future in the instant.”

As survivors of the Great 2008-09 Meltdown, we should readily recognize here the brassy voice of our own All-American Aspirational Class. It’s just this touching faith in the sweet by-the-bye, this headlong rush past scruple in pursuit of the Main Chance, that brought us subprime mortgages, securitized debt, credit default swaps, Ponzi pyramids and all the rest.

The Macbeths, Mister and Missus, start out as plain old socially mobile strivers, in the mold of Joe the Plumber, say, or Bernie Madoff. Who can blame them for just trying to get ahead with a little expert advice and inside info? (Weird Sisters or Wall Street Wizards – same diff. They’re all a buncha “juggling fiends…/ That palter with us in a double sense.”)

Like a trio of upbeat Life Coaches, Macbeth’s tutelary witches counsel him that he can be whatever he wants – even king, no less. Egged on by his wife, he hacks his way to the throne via regicide and a series of follow-up murders. But the ensuing guilt drives the couple first apart, then insane and finally to death.

Still, whatever qualms we may have about the Macbeths’ ethics or mental hygiene, their sheer entrepreneurial zeal commands some sneaking admiration. No queasy introverts, these, but dynamic action dolls from the get-go.

In the opening scenes, we meet them separately, Macbeth (Peter Macon) as a war hero and his Lady as hellion helpmeet to his vaulting ambitions.  By the time we finally see them together onstage, already five scenes into the play, there’s enough of an erotic implicitly built up between them that sparks are ready to fly.

All the more so as director Gale Edwards has tapped two of Ashland’s sexiest actors to play them. OSF regulars will remember Nordli in such blonde bombshell roles as Roxanne in Cyrano, the line-dancing Aunt Chris in UP and Beatrice in Much Ado. As for Macon, who starred as Othello in last year’s OSF season, he’s so hot that Edwards has him perform shirtless for most of the last Acts IV and V.

Conjoin these two and the result is a sex-fueled crime spree. But the Macbeths are not exactly exhibitionist Bonnie-and-Clyde types; more like Othello and Desdemona — an ingrown bond that blooms into a cancer, destroying both its hosts.

Interracial marriage is an integral plot-point in Othello. Not so in Macbeth. Maybe the Macon-Nordli match-up is just another instance of the OSF’s long-standing pursuit of color-blind, post-racial casting. But as an enthusiastic miscegenator for my entire 30-odd-year married life, I hope I don’t brand myself as biased when I suspect there’s more than mere coincidence at work here. Pairing the lead actors across color lines lends their union an extra, transgressive intensity at first and then heightens the poignancy of their alienation.

Under Edwards’ direction, Nordli comes off whiter than white, whether as a Steel Magnolia death-trap hostess at the outset or a broken faience doll in the end. Imagine Martha Stewart morphing into Blanche DuBois. And Macon, for his part, runs through a range of black tropes along the arc of Macbeth’s trajectory, from G.I. Joe to a psychotic gangsta to a haunted Emperor Jones. He has the Paul Robeson baritone and smoldering glower to carry it off.

Edwards, an Australian, gives an interesting antipodal spin to Macon’s negritude, especially in the last (topless) acts of the play.  By the time of his second encounter with the Weird Sisters, the famous “something wicked this way comes” scene, Macbeth is already so unhinged that the witches dare overtly taunt him in a macabre game of Monkey-in-the-Middle. In the course of this man-handling, Macon winds up emblazoned across his head and bare torso with bright white handprints, which he retains until the final curtain.

Asked about this device in a post-performance interview, Ashland veteran Robynn Rodriguez, who plays the First Witch, ascribed it to Edwards’ Australian sensibility – an allusion to Aboriginal body painting. Whatever their provenance, the eerie white-on-black handprints practically luminesce in designer Marc McCullough’s lurid lighting for the final scenes, branding the doomed tyrant as literally a marked man.

That’s just one instance of the myriad smart production choices that add up – if only subliminally – to make this such an effective staging of Macbeth. Then, too, there’s Scott Bradley’s set design: an over-arching bridge rising out of the half-seen morass of a corpse-strewn battlefield. Or Murell Horton’s World War I themed costumes. Not to mention a stellar supporting cast, with special kudos due to Kevin Kenerly’s MacDuff.

Legend has it that Shakespeare’s “secret, black and midnight hags” cast their spells with such verisimilitude that the script is jinxed. Sure enough, Rodriguez reports, during rehearsals the current OSF version of “the Scottish play” (as it’s still euphemized by superstitious actors) saw more than enough onstage mishaps and last-minute substitutions. But, for audiences at least, the final product of Ashland’s 2009 Macbeth offers a sure-fire evening of high-powered drama.

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

Lincoln Kaye
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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1 Response

  1. Avatar Sue Mulvihill says:

    This was interesting to read as we just drove to Ashland to see Macbeth this week. My question is, however, why did you print this now in the last week of the 2009-2010 season? Wouldn't have been a more useful review much earlier?