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Highland High Jinx

In the Public Theater's misbegotten production of "Macbeth," Alec Baldwin plays the overambitious thane like a slick Wall Street operator.

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Irish English, Scottish English, Welsh English, English English have their several melodies. Only Standard American English is as flat as a tack. Which is why one language Shakespeare does not translate into is American. Not that all the actors in the Public Theater’s ill-starred revival of Macbeth can manage even decent stage English. What might help a little would be substituting New York every time Scotland occurs in the text: Cawdor and Glamis could then become Harlem and Brooklyn with no harm to the meter -- if meter there were.

Delivering poetry is about as alien to the average American actor as speaking, for instance, Oxbridge. There is an art to verse on the stage for which even Hollywood stardom, such as Alec Baldwin’s and Angela Bassett’s, is not quite sufficient preparation. It must sound simultaneously like poetry and like plausible speech. To be sure, few cast members of this Macbeth qualify as anything so competent as the average American actor. Some fall sadly short, others leap grandiosely beyond. George C. Wolfe, the director, clearly believes that multicultural beats specific. Yet just because it is free of all things Scottish, this production should not go scot-free.

For starters, take the witches. Of seemingly college age, they might be a trio of students dressed up for Halloween. Since the simplistic staging does not allow for much of a cauldron, Wolfe substitutes a melting pot: one Japanese-American witch, one African-American witch, and one Caucasian witch bedizened for some postgraduate trick-or-treating. Though untalented, they’re very cute, but as we know, weird sisterhood is beautiful.

The bloody sergeant’s report is delivered by Dan Moran on his back in a kind of machine-made monotone so uninflected that the ear refuses to digest it. The attention is grabbed by Duncan, a king who parades around the battlefield in full throne-room regalia. He is played by Rocco Sisto, whom Wolfe lets louse up three roles plus all the voices of the apparitions, here portrayed by kewpie dolls.

Sisto’s Duncan sounds and behaves, in a desperate attempt at old age, like those kids playing the wise men in the grade-school Christmas pageant. Later, he returns as a big clod whom the program labels “a Scottish doctor,” even as it designates others as “Scottish thanes,” no doubt to distinguish them from Sicilian or Jamaican ones. Nathan Hinton plays one of these “Scottish thanes,” Ross, with no other perceptible qualifications than a fine set of dreadlocks.

Alec Baldwin would be a good Macbeth if Macbeth were a contemporary slick American operator in a Hollywood thriller. He gives you the great “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy with the same ardor and eloquence with which your TV weatherman predicts tomorrow’s temperature. As Lady M., Angela Bassett looks stunning, and is blameless until she opens her mouth. (Some of the others, like Jeffrey Nordling’s S-shaped Macduff, need not even speak to sink.) Unfortunately, nothing she does or says is as memorable as her Bride of Frankenstein hairdo, on which a crown sits like a bagel on a haystack.

The hair design, by Jeffrey Frank, may be the production’s cynosure. These Scottish thanes and English generals and sons come, like dachshunds, in short-haired and long-haired varieties. The contrast being so striking between, say, the girlishly golden locks of the otherwise undistinguished Malcolm (Michael Hall) and Baldwin’s trimly barbered Macbeth, you suspect hidden meanings. Is short hair evil, long hair good? Is one Scottish, the other English? Is one for the thane, the other for the inthane? Though rhyme is heard at times, reason is nowhere.

As director, Wolfe concentrates on the following, in order of importance. First, light effects (by Scott Zielinski). Perhaps as an insight into the Scottish climate, there is paroxistic lightning and thunder all over the place -- unless, of course, medieval Scotland was poorly wired and prone to short circuits. Next, the original music (by Carlos Valdez), consisting almost solely of interminable drum rolls, possibly spelling out the play’s meaning to the hearing-impaired. Next, the costumes (by Toni-Leslie James), strictly subfusc, registering against Riccardo Hernández’s brown set as murk on murk.

Next, a few realistic, modern touches. While Banquo (Liev Schreiber) is orating, just overhead a servant on his knees is scrubbing a bridge. When the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth speaks out self-incriminatingly, the Doctor declares “I will set down what comes from her,” and promptly pulls out a pencil and journalist’s pad. But there is anti-realism, too. Marching on Dunsinane, the invaders wear not one sprig of Birnam Wood. Macbeth’s buckling on his armor consists of said servant’s strapping one cloth legging on his master’s left shin. Seyton, standing high above Macbeth, wears a shoulder-length black veil; removing it, he turns into Banquo’s ghost. The aforementioned servant is Macbeth’s entire army, making Macbeth a true superman. Other directors have the knack of making a small cast convey multitudes. With the opposite talent, Wolfe turns eighteen into a mightless handful.

The rudimentary décor, an hommage to the old Globe, does feature a large, tilted, overhanging mirror. Its presence presages an orgiastic sex scene for the Macbeths, but, disappointingly, serves only for the ghost to appear in -- scant work for such a huge rising and descending prop. No less unusual are some line readings, as when Macbeth pauses at “the sere . . . and yellow leaf,” as if yellow were an afterthought to help audiences unfamiliar with sere. The truest lines are spoken by the Rastafarian Ross: “I have words / That would be howl’d out in the desert air, / Where hearing should not latch them.” Few, if any, here have words of any other kind.


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