Monday, May 11, 2015

Miss Shakespeare

When you see a lot of theater (or any other art form), it's axiomatic that they can't all be winners. Recently, there have been few highs and some really exceptional lows. (Fortunately, some of the best stuff I've seen this year has been youth-oriented theater, so at least I can rest assured that my kids are getting exposed to some of the better efforts while their minds are still forming). I'm not going to name any names, but some of the worst has been presented by organizations that really should know better.

But the losing streak was broken this weekend when we saw a new musical, Miss Shakespeare, presented at the intimate and flexible Performance Works Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver. With a seven-woman cast, the piece is running in rep with an all-female, futuristic adaptation of Julius Caesar. The Miss Shakespeare of the title is the Bard's younger daughter, Judith, who feels passionately moved to make art (and naughtier pursuits) but is stifled by restrictions on women's participation in the theater. Dauntless, she persuades a tavern-keeper to lend her his cellar and assembles a group of women to be her secret players. Despite the risks if they are discovered, the women launch themselves into the brave new world of making theater, first enacting Venus and Adonis and later tackling Judith's first play, a telling of the story of Atalanta and taking the show on the road, daringly dressed as men (and leading to the entertaining but rather puerile number "Keep Your Pizzle in Your Pants").

Each woman represents a different type of female oppression, and each receives an opportunity to sing about her life. While the production notes refer to the music as "influenced by European cabaret," the songs really are a pastiche of musical theater styles, including a gospel number, rock-pop, and Elizabethan-inflected harmonies. One married woman remains a virgin -- her pious husband will not touch her and she cannot seek companionship outside her marriage. Another agonizes over her fourteenth miscarriage and imagines what each child might have been like. The lone daughter among nine sons (played with spunk by the playwright, Tracey Power) laments her struggles to live as fierce and fulfilling a life as her brothers, and relishes an opportunity to try on male roles and trousers. One member of the troupe, the bastard daughter of an actor born to a well-born, unmarried mother, inserts herself into the group and teaches them something important about empathy when another member of the troupe finds herself inconveniently pregnant. A sixth player is Susannah Shakespeare Hall, Judith's elder sister, who struggles to reconcile her desire for stability in her bourgeois family with her desire to support her sister.

The seventh actor is a white-haired woman who functions as a verse-speaking storyteller. Masked, she also plays the apparition of William Shakespeare (who says a ghost has to be dead, he posits) who periodically appears to Judith to spar with her and spurs her on to greater commitment to her artistic life. A self-styled Prospero to Judith's Miranda, she insists on her own agency as something other than the famous man's daughter. It wasn't particularly surprising to me when this storyteller is revealed in the play's epilogue to be Judith herself, fifty years later, reflecting back from a world which now allows women, including her own niece, to make plays.

One additional character appears in several scenes -- that tavern-keeper who provides the rehearsal space. He is played by several members of the cast in turn, each putting on a bar apron and assuming the role. This proves to be a rare misstep in the production, because he turns out to be an emotionally important character -- the man who has loved Judith for years, teaches her to write, and ultimately marries and then betrays her. By allowing the one male character to be played by interchangeable women, the production may be attempting to reverse years of similar treatment of female characters, but a critical emotional conflict and developing relationship was undermined to the play's detriment.

This is essentially a woman's-conflict-with-society play, and not one that centers on interpersonal conflicts, which I why I think the relationship between Judith and Susannah presents another muddled opportunity. Susannah is always conflicted about her support of Judith's enterprise, presenting the voice of conformity with social standards, although she decides to go along with it as a member of the troupe. When Susannah drops out of the company on the eve of their performance, it is hardly unexpected by the audience, but it also seems not to surprise Judith and company. The show goes on with nary a hiccup, and any tension therefore dissolves. A good deal of time is invested in developing this character and their relationship, but it fails to come to any important climax. To show Judith's struggle not just with her father's influence but also the women in her family, perhaps a stronger choice would have been to have the storyteller play not just Judith's father speaking in her head but also her mother. Anne Hathaway is certainly an interesting character and presenting her could have been very compelling.

The musical numbers are not the most memorable songs ever written, but they are certainly more than competent. They do a good job of lightening the load of so much suppression, and make for a strong reminder that, though the play is set in the early 17th century (the period-indicative costumes in shades of cream and tan are beautifully done, and the set with Tudor-style rafters, wood floor, and rough-hewn furniture topped with glowing lanterns sets the space in time while keeping it cozy), these women face daily challenges that are not as far removed from our own as sometimes we might like to think.

This is a solid and enjoyable piece of work. I hope that it draws plenty of attention, because it could be a very welcome piece in university settings where casts with many strong roles for women are frequently needed (and the production and musical requirements are not onerous). I think it would be a little bawdy for most high schools, but if Powers were willing to slightly adapt some of the references to asses, pizzles, and "putting it in," it would otherwise be a terrific educational theater piece at that level too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shakespearean Rhapsody

I recently had an opportunity to take my two younger children to a vibrant piece of theater aimed at introducing young kids to Shakespeare, Shakespearean Rhapsody at Vancouver's Carousel Theatre for Young People. I was delighted to see the piece advertised as appropriate for younger children, ages 4 and up, because (for fairly obvious reasons) most Shakespeare experiences for younger audiences tend to be aimed at older kids and teens. But my 8 year old, especially, is quite taken with Shakespeare, and in fact has been going around zestfully biting his thumb at his brothers ever since we watched the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet together. My 4 year old, too, has paid rapt attention to whatever filmed Shakespeare I have been watching, and definitely picks up on key plot points and has a strong feel for character. (Spoiler: he likes bad guys.)

The piece, adapted in part from Lois Burdett's "Shakespeare Can Be Fun" series, is performed by four actors in colorful, Elizabethan-inflected costumes (breeches, overskirts, etc.) on a storybook-like set. In one hour, they perform highly abridged, but faithful, versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest (plus an introduction) with simple additions of hats, capes, swords, and the like to indicate the many characters each actor plays. The dialogue, in rhymed couplets, provides exposition of the complicated plots while also incorporating many key phrases from Shakespeare's writing. Jokes, action, swordfights, romance, and snippets of songs abound.

I had two primary concerns going in: first, would the kids be able to follow what was happening given the whirlwind of information and the potential confusion of a small cast playing numerous roles? And second, was it going to be unbearably twee and ren-faire perky?

I was very happy with respect to both questions. The kids seemed to follow along quite comfortably, and were particularly interested to see how many parts one actor could play. My little one has excellent recall of the plays now, several weeks later. To the production's credit, the role of Miranda is played, beautifully, by a male member of the cast, which demonstrated freedom, creativity, practicality, and a nice history lesson, all without having to say a word about it.

As for the twee factor, director Carole Higgins walked a very difficult line without a misstep. The cast (which includes at least one graduate of Carousel's own teen Shakespeare program) is upbeat and engaging, but their voices are rich, not squeaky-cute, and their smiles feel sincere, not pasted on. The comedy is contemporary and relevant without resorting to excessive corniness or crudeness (I like a fart joke as much as the next mother of three boys, but I'm not a fan of the movie trend of adding endless bathroom humor to classics to make them "appeal" to a mixed audience). Perhaps most importantly, the production presents all the richness of emotion in the plays -- love, loss, death, rage, fear -- straight on and appropriately contextualized. The children took it all in stride and got to experience for themselves what being moved by Shakespeare really feels like. This is, I think, the core of what it means to make a piece of children's theater that is neither condescending to its audience nor unfaithful to its source material.

I left the theater with my head bubbling with thoughts about what I would do if given an opportunity to make a Shakespeare production for younger children. This "storybook" version of three plays was one highly effective way to go about it, but I started to ponder others. A one-hour abridged version of one play would permit a deeper dive into a story with a little more space for calm and slower moments (my classmate last year in "The Art of Teaching Shakespeare" made a terrific stab at a shortened Tempest for her elementary students, working alongside their studies of Renaissance explorers and North America). Or, in a completely different direction, an hour of scenes and characters from a variety of plays exploring a particular theme (daughters and sons? fairies and ghosts?) could be interesting. Is there a way to focus on the rhythm and imagery of Shakespeare's verse rather than plot?

I always think it's a mark of a good theatrical experience to leave wanting to take the ideas and run with them. I saw that the kids felt exactly the same way, as they performed competing versions of Romeo's death scene all the way home.

Monday, March 9, 2015

How to Tell if You Are in a Shakespearean Comedy

Courtesy of The Toast, this handy guide will help you figure out if you are, in fact, in a Shakespearean comedy!

Please stay tuned while I try to find time to read Two Gentlemen of Verona while the kids are on spring break.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jack Hath Not Gill: Love's Labour's Lost

Love's Labour's Lost is a perfect example of why I took this project on. Less often produced than the big ones, I'd never seen it performed on stage or screen, and somehow had never managed to read it. Mere lines into Act I, I realized I knew virtually nothing about it -- it never much came up in classes or critical writing I've encountered. It's not a minor play, but you can easily get by without knowing it, and that's what I wanted to remedy for myself.

It's fun to read a Shakespeare play without knowing the first thing about it -- and my mild embarrassment about how many plays fit this bill for me is far outdone by the pleasure of reading them fresh.

But I have to confess, I had a really hard time with this one. A few of the reasons are purely technical. First of all, there are several characters whose humor is based on their convoluted or overbaked way of speaking, and layered on to already unfamiliar Elizabethan language, that made it hard going for me. Second, there is a ton of clearly topical and slangy comedy that is easily lost in the sands of time. I can often tell that something is supposed to be funny about what is being said, but I'm not always sure I understand why. There is some super-duper bawdy double-entendre humor in this play that is much enhanced if you know the basics of Elizabethan dirty jokes, and having Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy at hand was, as it always is, indispensable. Then, pile on the usual love-cross trickery -- misdelivered letters, masked balls where the wooers woo the wrong wooee -- and the opportunities for total confusion abound.

But all that is remedied with good use of notes, glossaries, plot summaries, and the like. My bigger problem had to do with just not finding this play -- its themes, its poignancy, its poetry -- as transporting and insightful as I usually find Shakespeare. Was it just me?

I asked a dinner party full of theater friends if any had worked on Love's Labour's Lost in their careers, and if so, what did they think of it. One friend, a costume designer, was the only person who had, and she loves the play, finds it extremely rich on the subject of relationships. I admire and trust her, so I kept reading with her endorsement in mind. If there was something deeper to find beyond the humor, I really, really wanted to find it. Another friend suggested listening to a good audio recording, in case it just wasn't coming off the page to me.

I read it again, carefully, and watched one of the few films available, Kenneth Branagh's 2000 musical adaptation. It helped! If anything could make the material sparkle it's one of Branagh's hugely talented all-star casts performing the play as if a bright Hollywood musical circa 1940, complete with faux newsreel footage, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs, and Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire type choreography. Here, the world is nervously watching as Ferdinand, the King of Navarre takes an oath that he and his courtiers will spend three years at ascetic study without interacting with women, just as Europe is on the verge of war. His self-imposed inability, then, to negotiate with the Princess of France, should set high stakes.

This framing device, though, didn't remedy for me some of the essential problems. I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that the King would impose this set of restrictions on his court, but for dramatic purposes it really proves to be little restriction at all, as the court, led by Ferdinand's best pal Berowne, immediately sets about rationalizing why meeting with the princess outside the palace gates is no violation of the oath. But  restricting the ability of the courtiers to further woo their respective love interests among the ladies-in-waiting feels more than a little contrived, and we get various scenes of hair-splitting discussion about why they can go this far but no further. What with the comic love triangle involving a pregnant country girl, the ladies double-crossing the gents by switching masks at the ball, and a bad play performed by bad actors for the royal courts (this is handled about a gazillion times better in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the preparations for this theatrical monstrosity are fully integrated into the play and resonate beautifully with the play's themes), I felt the pairs of lovers were being kept apart simply to keep all these balls in the air.

The ending, though, contains a twist I honestly wasn't expecting at all. You know what happens at the end of a Shakespeare comedy, right? Of course you do -- the pairs of lovers confess their love, are united in a big wedding scene, and everyone walks off happily together into the sunset, except for whatever amusing punishment needs to be handed out to the comic characters. And that's exactly what doesn't happen here.

Instead, when the time comes for the pairs of lovers to join in happy matrimony, the princess and her ladies inform their guys that because the men broke a solemn oath to woo them, now they must prove their seriousness and constancy by spending a year and a day engaged in service. The King and his right hand man, Berowne, conclude this way:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.

Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an' a day,
And then 'twill end.

                             That's too long for a play.

I find that just delicious in so many ways. I love that there is some blowback for bad behavior, not just the usual brushing it off because there is a wedding that has to happen by Act V. I love when Shakespeare gets all meta like that. And I love all the speculation about what might have happened in the lost play Love's Labour's Won, and whether that was just an alternate title for a play we know, such as Much Ado About Nothing.

While I can't say I found a new favorite Shakespeare play, or even one I like a lot, I'm very glad I dug in and found something to admire. I'd actually very much like to work on a production of Love's Labour's Lost to see if the production process makes it richer for me (this has happened to me in the past, yes I'm talking about you, Oleanna) so if anyone in Vancouver would like a cheap dramaturg or assistant director for their production, you know how to reach me.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

All Mirth and No Matter: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado is such a popular work, mostly celebrated for the witty banter between Beatrice and Benedick, that I was rather shocked to discover, when I sat down to re-read it, that I don't actually think it's all that great a play on the page. (In fact, I'm sure it's part of the reason I got so bogged down getting this project going). It's certainly filled with clever wordplay in those famous scenes, but what surrounds it is surprisingly stilted. The reliance on mistaken identity and disguise, while ancient staples of comedy, feels a little ham-handed and contrived, and Don John as a bad guy (with henchmen) has little motivation, other than his stated melancholic humour (and the villain's comeuppance is surely among the most unsatisfying ever written -- it's noted that he has fled, and then just before the final curtain we hear he has been captured, but his fate and the plot's resolution is left for another day).

What makes this the work of a master and not just an Elizabethan rom-com is Shakespeare's willingness to let the machinations play out nearly to the point of catastrophe before setting everything right for the happy ending. To do this, we have to believe that Hero could die of shame when her alleged wantonness is exposed at her wedding. I think this core concept is very difficult to sustain for a modern audience, even one steeped in discussions of rape culture and "slut shaming." Hero doesn't face just the ruin of her reputation, or even exile and shame, but her own father states that if the slander is true, she'd be better off dead and her purported death from shame is thoroughly accepted as possible, in light of the dishonor she has brought to the family. And it is the resistance of Beatrice and Benedick, along with the Friar, alone among their social set, to the smearing of Hero that makes it clear that their hearts are meant for one another.

I don't doubt that Shakespeare's audience found more to connect with in this play. A villain (a bastard) driven by his ill humour fit entirely within their worldview, as did a young woman's fate determined by an unquestioning patriarchal judgment of her chastity. But the reliance on these points makes this play less than timeless.

So Much Ado comes down to performance to imbue it with a life I didn't take away on the page. This generally is attributed to excellent chemistry between the Beatrice and Benedick (how many actor couples have played these roles opposite one another?) but the whole production needs to bring that energy, pacing, and believable stakes. For this to work, we need to believe that John is willing to go all the way with his plot of destruction, we need to believe that Hero's life could be at stake, and we need to believe that these people will be torn apart if she isn't saved. To make the turn from comedy to tragedy to comedy succeed, those motivations, stakes, emotions, and relationships need to feel real, and these characters less cardboard than they seem on the page.

There is a lot of PLOT in this play, and a lot of highly constructed wordplay, but the characterizations feel stock to me, composed of attributes needed to make them play their parts in the mechanics of the story. It's a play with a lot of gears turning on every level, like a farce. When it's staged well, a farce can be a wonderful thing, but if it lacks characterization and emotional force, it's ultimately empty. A theme I appreciate in this play is the way cynicism masks true emotional vulnerability, and how the shedding of cynicism through near-tragedy leads to genuine connections and comeuppance. To make that persuasive, we need to believe the genuine is lurking beneath the words and the plotting. We need to see the human faces beneath the masks.

I've long been interested in how Much Ado plays with the conventions and mechanics of comedy, showing how easily the amusing misunderstandings, meddlings, and dissemblings can go awry and lead to tragedy. Of course, as a comedy, we require a reversal to provide the mandated happy ending, and that is engineered here. But I actually find the point more persuasive in Romeo & Juliet, where many of the same trappings -- the masked ball, the intercepted messages -- lead to their unavoidable tragic conclusion. The comedy-turned-tragedy structure is painfully ironic, and when the turning points are reached, the emotional wallop remains, 400 years later, powerful. Much Ado, witty as it is, packs little punch for me. Since it doesn't have much to say to me in terms of its structure, I have to find it charming in performance.

Over the last few days I watched three filmed productions -- Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film, Joss Whedon's 2012 film, and Josie Rourke's 2011West End staging. Two of these, the Whedon and the Rourke, have modern settings (contemporary Los Angeles and 1980s Gibraltar, respectively), while the Branagh takes place in a sunny Tuscan villa in some unspecified past time that involves breeches and corsets but allows bare-legged alfresco dining.

Both the Whedon and Rourke productions suffered from a disconnect between the setting and the stakes. While I admired the DIY spirit of the Whedon film -- good friends who enjoy playing with Shakespeare do it (relatively) cheap and fast in a naturalistic setting -- and the liveliness of the comedy in the Rourke, I think the modern, wealthy milieu in both productions undercut the stakes. I simply could not accept that Hero's purported lapse in chastity could result in a barrage of shame and her father perferring her death to dishonor after a weekend house party including erotic acrobats, hot-tub cocktails, and sexual entanglements among the guests (Whedon) and onstage stag and hen parties complete with blow-up sex dolls and strippers (Rourke).  Indeed, in the Whedon the open sexuality of characters including Beatrice and Benedick (seen in flashbacks) and Don John with a female Conrade make the shame rained down on Hero even more baffling. Without this core motivation, all the charming banter and creative comic lazzi feels hollow.

Branagh doesn't fully avoid these problems, by virtue of his setting his production n the sensuous world of a Tuscan villa. The setting is so sunny, so strewn with tanned limbs and ripe fruits -- the opening sequence features giddy tearing off of clothes and nude communal showers -- that again, I find it hard to wrap my head around the contrast between this cheerful hedonism and the chastity scandal to follow. (Of the atrocious performance of Keanu Reeves, it is best not to speak.)

What the Branagh version does more successfully -- and I saw some of this in the Rourke as well -- is to make Claudio's accusation motivated by his heartbreak that Hero was untrue to him more than his fury to have been betrothed by fraud to a woman who was not a maid. Hero, then, also has her heart broken, to see the man she loves think she has betrayed him and that he is lost to her. I saw less of this personal betrayal in the Whedon and more fury on Claudio's part to have been sold a bill of goods. It helps that in the Branagh film we witness this pivotal scene through Claudio's eyes, whereas in the Whedon film the scene is glimpsed in flashback as Borachio narrates it to Conrade. 

But whether we believe Claudio is heartbroken or not, the play still requires that Leonato and Don Pedro turn their fury onto Hero for her lack of chastity, with such venom that they find death preferable. I think this is too hard a sell for the worlds in which the Whedon and the Rourke productions are set, and requires the audience to accept a mindset that simply doesn't ring true. The fit is uneasy in the Branagh, too, but at least the "once upon a time, in Tuscany" setting helps a bit.

I can certainly imagine contemporary settings adhering to traditional notions of female sexual conduct that could work. How about a Sopranos-style Mafia family where adherence to old-world Catholicism and macho control of wives and daughters demands female chastity despite modern temptations? (I thought this was going to be the case in the opening scene of the Rourke production, where there were a heck of a lot of male chests sporting gold chains, but no.) A family centered on a successful TV evangelist? A Bollywood setting could incorporate these stakes and easily accommodate the masquerade and mistaken identity elements that make the plot machinery turn and also can feel strained in a Western, contemporary setting. A middle eastern sheikh's palace? I could even see a very rich contemporary adaptation in which Hero is a high school student who has been "slut shamed" on Facebook, leading to believable reports of her suicide.

So as hard a time as I had getting myself into the play on the page, and despite the problems I see in trying to make the play fit in a modern setting (which is a project I generally support in contemporary Shakespeare productions -- I'd rather see the attempts flaws and all), I leave my immersion in Much Ado as enthusiastic as I ever was to see it come alive onstage (or onscreen) again and again.

P.S. I don't expect to write this much about every play, or to review so many productions, but this one has been on my mind for a couple of years now, so out it came.

Title: Beatrice in II, i, 133.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

By Waves From Coast To Coast

Greetings, vast readership! I bet you're wondering if I just gave up entirely before I even began. Well, no. But my summer assistant teaching engagement led directly into our move across the continent, where we were greeted with an ongoing teachers strike that led to my nearly going insane from prolonged exposure to my children. I just didn't have a moment (or, more precisely, sufficient chunk of moments) to focus my attention on Shakespeare. But good news! We are down to about five moving boxes and the strike was settled, so the children are all in school. I can start thinking again.

 Above is a picture of our bit of coast, so you can see why I have been easily distracted. Good news for Shakespeare lovers, though, the celebrated Vancouver rain has rolled in.

No ETA, but I'm resuming my read of Much Ado and will work on my post. Preview: I'm surprised to find the play on the page rather more clunky than I'd thought it was. I think this is one that really comes alive only in production. More on that later, and hopefully I'll be able to rewatch a few of the notable film versions again, depending on the vagaries of Canadian Netflix and my local library.

(Today's title: "And he, good prince, having all lost, by waves from coast to coast is toss'd" comes to us from Pericles, Act 2, Prologue, lines 33-34.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Evening Among the Rarer Monsters of Park Avenue

Let me begin by saying that I am not the world's biggest fan of Kenneth Branagh, by a longshot. On the basis of his film work, I have always found him fairly smug and sometimes hammy, as if he was looking at his reflection back in the camera lens and thinking, "Why, yes! In fact I am the second coming of Laurence Olivier!" Nonetheless, I have respect for his work, so when my friend Ingrid offered me a spare ticket to see his co-production of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory earlier this week, I jumped at the chance. 

This production has been lauded, for good reason, for its expansive set, which makes excellent use of the vast interior of the Armory. The last time I saw a play in an armory was in 1992, when a group of us from the Yale School of Drama made the pilgrimage to Park Slope to sit on hard folding chairs for 10 hours over two days to see Ariane Mnouchkine's epic staging of Les Atrides. It was the theatrical event of the time, and in addition to the inside-theater people-watching on offer, the atmosphere in the room felt as charged and excited as if we were about to see the Beatles reunion, or something. Anyway, the feeling inside the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday night was as close to that as I've felt in the theater in the decades since. 

Audience members check in at tables as if they are registering for an event. At check-in, you are assigned to a clan and given a color-coded wristband (we were Lennox). From there, you are sent to meet your clan leader in one of the beautiful outer rooms containing ornate wood carvings and high ceilings. Your clan leader provides a program booklet covered in your clan's tartan, produced from a military-style bag on her or his belt, and leads you into the performance space. (Hooded figures give dire warnings about photography being prohibited, and man, they are not kidding -- I saw one audience member get into a screaming match with an usher and a house manager over a single snap taken after the show.)

And there the magic begins. The vast armory space has been filled with dirt, puddles, and dried grasses, with a wooden path winding through it. The edges disappear into the darkness, and you feel you are walking through a misty heath. (On the way out, a lone bagpiper plays.) Along the way, figures holding torches and wearing hoods keep you to the path, as your clan leader escorts your group up to the steeply raked seats on either side of a traverse performance space made of dirt. (Seating is on padded benches, no back support, and the play runs two hours without intermission. Like the Scots of the play, we soldiered on.) At either end of the performance space are giant stone columns with horizontal stones across them, reminiscent of Stonehenge. From the direction you approach, the spaces between them are open, but at the other end there are ancient-looking frescoes of Christ and the saints, a looming Celtic cross, and a huge bank of lit pillar candles. A hooded woman, her back to us, appears to be praying there.

The action begins -- the Weird Sisters are perched in the spaces between the columns; they appear to float. A battle takes place before us, all clanging swords and flying, filthy kilts. A light rain begins to fall on the players -- that dirt floor is now mud. You can even smell the damp dirt and wool. For the next two hours, that mud will stain the hems of Lady Macbeth's gowns. Men will fall into it. It will be rubbed on skin and cloth. In the midst of all this, while soaking in the atmosphere in the air, that sense of being in centuries-past Scotland, I think about how much the wardrobe folks must hate that goddamned set.

As the play progresses, I find myself making note of the dramaturgy and the language, the way Shakespeare's key themes of ambition, making your own fate, and taking -- and not taking -- action are explored, and particularly how he explores the differences between men and women with regard to ambition. The language is pronounced clearly and quickly, and it's easy to make out every word. I am also struck by how primitive the cultural moment depicted seems, especially in Act IV when we are shown the Witches in their most pagan ecstasy. This is a society that still has a foot in the wild, matriarchal pagan world of its ancestors, while it strives towards its patriarchal, Christian monarchy.

What I don't get is a sense of horror, of deep emotional turmoil. Branagh is better than I'd imagined -- on stage, that hammy self-regard is gone; he can't play to the camera. Alex Kingston is a strong Lady Macbeth, one without the drag-queenish villainy sometimes seen in the role. There is blood, but not very much of it, and as the mud dries, I start to get a feeling that it's there to serve as some kind of metaphor, as much as it is to create a world -- See how everyone is muddied by Macbeth's ambition! It seems a little glib to me. There is ample sword fighting, but it's very safe and choreographed. When Macduff's wife and son are killed before us, I feel little tension, and that is a scene in which a woman is forced to watch her child murdered before her. Her death is so gracefully choreographed that it looks more like a pas de deux than a war crime.

Macbeth can be played as a real gorefest and horror movie, and I'm not saying it has to be, but I do think that it needs a rawer sense of emotion than what was staged here. Part of the problem may be the very vastness of the space, in which we're all peering down at this narrow trench. The traverse stage itself is limiting -- much of the activity involves actors striding or running up and down the corridor. 

There are some nice moments and some good uses of the vastness of the space, as when the approaching armies begin to enter from far across the Armory, carrying their "leavy screens." In the banquet scene, two long wood tables are placed together at the center. When Banquo takes Macbeth's seat, the performers gently pull them apart to make a passage for the ghost, then push them back together. It's a lovely moment of simple stage magic. Less lovely are the carefully crafted but rather too flashy holographic daggers Macbeth sees before him. I'm not sure why any effects are needed -- does the audience need to see these at all? It distracts from focusing on what is happening for Macbeth at that very moment.

Better is Kingston's playing of the handwashing scene. She stands, in a white nightgown, on top of the monolith above the bank of candles at which she had prayed at the start of the show. It is a striking image, and her terror and guilt are palpable. Similarly, it's in the simpler moments that the strength of Branagh's performance shines through. When he is still, and not pacing the traverse, we see his transformation from a laureled warrior to provoked co-conspirator, from murderer aghast at what he has done to plotter of horrors he has begun to believe he is entitled to by right. It's a clear elucidation of the man's progress from beginning to end. It reminded me of one of the greatest contemporary characters and performances I've seen of late on this theme of harnessing one's inner ruthless ambition -- Bryan Cranston's Walter White -- though Walter White displayed a visceral burning desire I wish this production had tapped more.

I think making the ancient Scotland setting feel so real was the greatest accomplishment of this production. It put us in the same place as a people who think they are so modern and moving forward out of their past but who are still suspicious, still superstitious, and not as enlightened as they'd like to believe. In that, the specificity began to create a universal, which theater does at its best. Ultimately, though I would have liked a little less cerebral and a good deal more guts, this is an ambitious production that left me with a lot to chew on, a rubber wristband with my clan name, and a newfound appreciation of Kenneth Branagh.