Montford Park closes out its 37th Season (at least, until the annual production of A Christmas Carol) on well-trodden Shakespearean ground. Macbeth, like Hamlet, say, or Romeo and Juliet, generally addresses itself to a more or less informed audience. Many of us have seen the play before, and many of us have read the script and even committed parts of it to memory. For anyone attempting a new production, an audience of experts can be a mixed blessing. Some people will take delight in hearing the familiar lines and watching the familiar plot unfold; others will let quibbles with this or that particular choice ruin the whole experience.
While first-time director Stephanie Hickling has made some choices in the Montford production that, in my view, obscure what should be clear, overall she keeps a firm handle on the plot, and gets some performances from her actors that are among the best I’ve seen at Montford. Let me mention these first: Peter Millis and Trinity Smith, as the leading pair, both deliver their lines with confidence and precision, and at certain moments reach an intensity of focus that sends sparks though the dramatic action.
Terry Darakjy, who commands the stage as the “Porter” and “Hecate,” is delightful in both roles; it’s clear why she is a Montford favorite. Scott Keel’s “Banquo” is less warrior-like than scholarly, but his ease with the language makes his speeches seem completely natural; the same goes for Chris McLoughlin’s “Malcolm.” Gordon Clark as the “Old Man” and Darren Marshall as “Macduff” acquit themselves admirably as well, and although I have to wonder about the Braveheart paint, Marshall’s actorly commitment to the idea deserves credit. And the three “Weird Sisters” (Tonia Gassman, Kasey Johnson, and Joseph Barcia) throw themselves with no less intrepidity into their appointed tasks.
Unfortunately, many of the performances (especially the ones that take place on the “rampart”) are so poorly lit that at times it is difficult to tell who is there. At other times the person best lit is someone peripheral to the scene. (During the famous “vaulting ambition” speech, for instance, there’s less light downstage on Macbeth than upstage on the lurking Weird Sisters, whom, here as elsewhere, Hickling has attempted to integrate into the scene.) This is frustrating and confusing for the audience, of course; but more importantly, it’s a shame. Given the amount of time and effort that goes into putting on a play, the least you could do for your actors is to light them properly — or else put them where you also have a proper light. Granted, the resources for lighting at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre are limited in the extreme; but this is merely a challenge, not an obstacle.
Apart from the lighting issues, however, the production makes savvy use of Montford’s resources. The set — which is always the first thing one notices upon arrival at the amphitheater — comprises a kind of textured black void, which designer Elizabeth Shields has made sufficiently expressionistic to give us a feel for the nightmarish world of the play. The costumes likewise express character and setting with precision. Overall, the production is relatively free of those obvious incongruities that tend so regrettably to remind an audience that they’re tired, hungry, need a smoke, have to urinate, etc.
If, about midway through the second half of this two-and-a-half-hour show, I was indeed reminded of these things (well, apart from the smoking), it was because of the pacing. Everything seemed to slow down after the intermission — which is exactly the opposite of what should ideally happen — and I’m still puzzling over why this was so. I think it was a question of the actors “savoring” the pauses a bit too much, or in some cases, of their simply being a little sluggish on their cues. But the transitions between the scenes slowed down as well, with the consequence that the play seemed to run out of steam. Tighter scene changes, quicker cues, and perhaps even (yes) some cuts to the text would have helped here. The finale is, after all, a battle, and the play should wind up toward this climax with irresistible momentum. Montford audiences are loyal and well-disposed toward their Players; but even a well-disposed audience, if you expect them to sit in the falling dew and dropping temperatures, deserves to be entertained right up to the end, forsooth e’en to that silence most profound / betwixt the final couplet and th’ applause.
These concerns notwithstanding, Hickling makes an impressive directorial debut, and brings Montford’s season to a strong close. Speaking of seasons, make sure you bring an extra layer — or maybe a blanket — to the show. Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre exhibits certain meteorological anomalies after dark: It feels about ten degrees cooler there than anywhere else in Montford.
Macbeth, presented by The Montford Park Players. Directed by Stephanie Hickling. Set Design by Elizabeth Shields. Lighting Design by Brian Sneeden. Costume Design by Casey Morris. Featuring: Peter Millis, Trinity Smith, Gordon Clark, Chris McLoughlin, Darren Marshall, Hamilton Goodman, Brooke Whitcombe, Simon Wolf, Jason Williams, Anthony Antinora, Ami Pisano, Terry Darakjy, Tonia Gassman, Kasey Johnson, Joseph Barcia, and Heather McEachern.
Macbeth runs through Oct. 4, Fridays through through Sundays at 8 p.m. (weather permitting), with live musical prelude starting at 7:30 p.m. Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, Montford Park, Asheville. Admission free, donations encouraged. Concessions for sale before the show and during intermission.