Jon Patrick O’Brien & Abigail Bailey Maupin in Macbeth.
Photo: Holly Stone
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Wallace
Review by Ben Gierhart
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.
There is perhaps no other play that so thoroughly discusses the nature of ambition, the windfall rewards when that ambition is checked, and the dour penalties when it isn’t. To desire more and to employ any means to obtain it are innately human qualities, and no playwright understood humanity and its virtues and vices quite like Shakespeare. It can certainly be said that Kentucky Shakespeare has been an ambitious producing entity these past two seasons, and that ambition has served them well. From a precarious financial situation that was a cold reality just two years ago, Kentucky Shakespeare has managed to produce sterling work and increase their social and educational outreach, all while putting up record-setting attendance numbers. Ambition seems to suit them, and if the quality of their latest, near-perfect offering of Macbeth is any indication, that trend isn’t going to be upset any time soon.
For those who managed to avoid reading the Scottish play in high school or college, the setting is 11th Century Scotland. Just after winning a battle, our eponymous protagonist (Jon Patrick O’Brien) and his comrade Banquo (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) encounter three witches (Neill Robertson, Maggie Lou Rader, Megan Massie) who prophesy that Macbeth shall become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland while Banquo’s sons shall be kings. Unsure what to make of this cryptic announcement, they think little of it until shortly thereafter they learn that for his valor in battle, Macbeth has been awarded the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth returns home to Dunsinane to inform his Lady (Abigail Bailey Maupin) of the news and that they shall be entertaining the current King Duncan (Tom Luce) that very evening. In a moment of dark inspiration, the two conspire to assassinate the king in his sleep and do so in order to fulfill the remainder of Macbeth’s portion of the prophecy. As one might expect, this results in a chain reaction involving more murder and deception, all in a vain attempt to preserve both Macbeths’ hold on power that is spiraling out of control and his life. As one of Shakespeare’s hallmark tragedies, one can probably guess the result.
The play is revered for good reason and, subsequently, it is produced often. Wallace goes for a traditional approach with the material, but even so, manages to bring life and freshness to it. While it cannot be relied on, the deluge that preceded the performance that this reviewer attended added a level of verisimilitude and something very moor-like to the production. With the foliage of Tempest and garish banners of Shrew absent, the set was appropriately gloomy and austere, a real showcase of both its versatility and its designer’s (Paul Owen) talent. All of this in addition to bagpipe music (provided by Christian Thomas) and Donna Lawrence Downs’ wonderful costumes firmly establish the audience in the setting. Lighting and sound (Casey Clark and Laura Ellis) work harmoniously to create some truly beautiful and terrifying moments, particularly with the Witches and some of the other more surrealistic scenes. In fact, this reviewer’s favorite moment in the text is the vision of future kings that Macbeth receives upon his second visit to the Witches, and its execution here is a fine marriage of the technical and acting talent assembled in this production. Special attention must also be paid to Kathryn Spivey and Christian Bowyer’s props, which also gave the production authenticity and fun, especially a certain hammer wielded by Kyle Ware that would give even Chris Hemsworth a case of Mjolnir-envy.
No review of a Shakespeare play is complete without a discussion of the players, and top to bottom, this production is, once again, far from a disappointment. Both Jon O’Brien and Abigail Maupin deftly handle some of the most famous of all Shakespeare’s language and color it with true emotion. Two of the more interesting dynamics of the play are gender roles and the masculinity of ambition vs. the femininity of guilt. It was a truly progressive statement that Shakespeare was making back then, and O’Brien and Maupin dance that dance with skill that is both impressive and engrossing. Robertson, Rader, and Massie offer a weirdness (wyrdness?) to the Witches both ominous and unsettling, and their use throughout the play as stagehands to signify their role in the shaping of Macbeth’s fate was inspired. Benjamin’s Banquo is strong and sturdy, a dependable friend, which makes his demise at the hands of Macbeth and his appearance as a ghost somber and eerie. Jeremy Sapp brings masculinity and danger to the role of Macduff, providing a foil to an almost unstoppable Macbeth, a very difficult task to pull off. Gregory Maupin also needlessly implores the audience to remember him as the Porter in a turn that wrung out fresh and genuine laughter from a monologue that this reviewer had long considered a desiccated husk.
If there’s anything negative to say about the production at all, it’s that this reviewer found the final bout between Macduff and Macbeth to be oddly truncated and anticlimactic, a different world entirely from the rest of the incredible fight choreography provided by Eric Frantz. That being said, the sheer weight of the superlatives displayed here demands that this play be seen. The evils of ambition are real, but as clearly evidenced here, Kentucky Shakespeare has nothing to worry about.
July 3 – July 26, 2015
8:00PM Nightly Free Show; 7:15 pre-show
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
In Central Park
[box_light]Ben Gierhart is a local actor, playwright, and director who has worked with several companies in town including The Bard’s Town, Pandora Productions, Savage Rose, and Centerstage. Ben serves on the board and in the acting ensemble for The Bard’s Town Theatre, and he is also a founding member of the Derby City Playwrights, a collective dedicated to creating new and exciting plays in Louisville.[/box_light]