A dark ‘Macbeth’ is lit at Blackfriars Playhouse

Macbeth StauntonSTAUNTON – Though we “write men’s virtues in water,” according to Shakespeare, performing plays as ever “more water glideth by” is quite another matter. The topic this week is performing Shakespeare as it was meant to be enacted, for the Hard Bargain Players of Prince George’s County in May performed Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from May 10 to 19. It was performed in “a space where it was always meant to be played: right under our beautiful canopy of trees and starlight!” Although the Hard Bargain Players’ website waxed in this way lyrical on its Theatre in the Woods productions in Accokeek, the outdoor performance I had hoped to attend was not possible due to the heavy daily rains of last week. “To the water side, I must conduct your grace” indeed! (Shakespeare).    

While I hope to see the Hard Bargain Players at one point shortly, I make a virtue of necessity by reporting instead on “Macbeth“ (through June 9) in sunny Staunton, Virginia. Here is Shakespeare as it was “meant to be performed” – not outdoors, but with the unusual condition of “universal lighting.” At the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, the American Shakespeare Center actors introduce the play before they perform with the reminder that, theatre superstition, the play’s name “Macbeth” must not be uttered aloud in a theatre, lest disaster befall (claps of thunder could be heard as the name was first uttered).

The tragedy is instead to be referred to euphemistically as “the Scottish play.”      

Used in Shakespeare’s time, “universal lighting” requires that the play enacted on stage be performed in full lighting. More than this, the audience does not sit in darkness but is seated in an equally well-lit auditorium. Although this was Shakespeare as it shown in Shakespeare’s day, it was nonetheless jarring at first. I found, however, I soon accustomed myself to the approach, and a certain gritty realism was added to the witches, Banquo’s ghost and Lady Macbeth sleepwalking as she attempted to wash the invisible blood from her hands, exclaiming “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”  

Universal lighting also allows one to see the audience’s reaction. It was especially helpful in the one humorous spot in the play as the drunken porter responded to the knocking at the gate. The audience’s faces could be seen brightening and smiling at this comic relief, as the inebriated porter lumbered and bumbled onto the stage and anachronistically but uproariously seemed to be reciting some lines in a Donald Trump impression!  

In one of the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is a brave nobleman whose flaw of “vaulting ambition which overleaps itself and falls” is led on by the prophecy of the witches, or “weird sisters,” that he shall be king. Lady Macbeth, his wife, further goads Macbeth on to murder King Duncan and seize the crown for himself. Many deaths, cruelties and the ruin of the couple Macbeth ensue.

The cast was nothing short of superb. The performance of Ronald Román-Meléndez as the drunken porter has already been praised. Ally Farzetta, in particular, should also be singled out for a tour-de-force performance as Lady Macbeth, by turns winsome, charming, mocking and ever cold as ice.    

One aspect of which audiences should be aware: the American Shakespeare Center’s production of “Macbeth” employs splendid costumes for the characters but uses no curtains and virtually no props. For this reason, it is recommended to read the play or at least a thorough summary of it before venturing forth to Blackfriars Playhouse. The audience at the performance I attended consisted of school groups who had clearly just read “Macbeth.” However, it may have been a while since most of us read this work in high school.  

In the hopes that the heavy rains are over, readers are warmly encouraged to wend their way to Staunton to see “Macbeth” with its unusual universal lighting, fine acting and ability to transport viewers into the dark recesses of ambition in the human mind. Remember upon entering to refer to it only as “the Scottish play,” lest the rainclouds of May reappear and lightning strike!  


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