'Macbeth,' North by Northwest

Jake Waid as Macbeth and Richard Atoruk as Soldier in a lively adaptation of Shakespeare's play to Native American culture, at the Rasmuson Theater.
Jake Waid as Macbeth and Richard Atoruk as Soldier in a lively adaptation of Shakespeare's play to Native American culture, at the Rasmuson Theater. (By Katherine Fogden -- Smithsonian National Museum Of The American Indian)
By Nelson Pressley
Special To The Washington Post
Monday, March 12, 2007

The Southeastern Alaskan language Tlingit -- pronounced "klinkit" -- isn't especially full of sound and fury in the "Macbeth" of Juneau's Perseverance Theatre. But that's because in this production, which has been carefully imbued with Tlingit symmetry and ceremony by director Anita Maynard-Losh, the most bloody-minded speeches are rendered in English.

A political indictment of murderous ambition as a white man's game? That's seems like a reasonable conclusion as Jake Waid's Macbeth smoothly speaks Tlingit to his brethren, then turns to the audience and confides in English, "Stars, hide your fires; let not night light see my black and deep desires."

Yet it's not overt politics so much as two-faced secrecy that seems to be the issue in this faintly studious show, which fits beautifully inside the round Rasmuson Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. (Pinpoint starlight even glows from the ceiling that undulates over the audience.) Shiftiness is hard-wired to this easy-to-follow bilingual format. Keep an eye on the convenient English surtitles of Johnny Marks's Tlingit translation for most of the cast, then get the straight hard plots and paranoia in English from the scheming couple.

It's nicely conceived but not very powerful. Shakespeare's play overflows with emotional turbulence, but the acting is seldom intriguing or complicated. Some of this is indeed a matter of translation, since many (if not all) of the actors apparently had to learn Tlingit for this show.

But the English sounds as stately and straightforward as the Tlingit, leaving a lot of the play's inflated personality and supernaturalism oddly flat. Waid doesn't seem deeply troubled by Macbeth's deadly rationalizations and second-guessing, and Ekatrina Oleksa/Arrsamguq's rallying speeches as Lady Macbeth are similarly earnest and simple. You get the gist of the play, but not the juice.

The complexity of this Shakespeare in Washington festival entry is largely cultural, seen in the layering of Tlingit traditions onto one of the Bard's most famous and fast-moving plays. It's a percussive production, often propelled by heavy drumming and chants, with a ritualistic song and dance accompanying Macbeth's coronation. (Choreographer Gene Tagaban created the show's original music with George Holly.)

The weird sisters are rendered as Macbeth's tour guides to hell, doubling as his henchmen/murderers and at one point sporting wolf-like masks as they make creative mischief over their cauldron. Banquo's ghost makes an especially splashy appearance, haunting Macbeth and wearing a gigantic raven's head that dramatically splits in half.

Other eye-catching elements include the fur crown and fringed cape worn by Duncan (Allan Hayton, who doubles in an amusing turn as a stringy-wigged porter), the cold sound of wind after Duncan's murder (seen in silhouette), and the understated but compelling dignity of Tagaban's Banquo and Andrew Okpeaha Maclean's Macduff.

It's generally lively, and it's fast. Maynard-Losh's Tlingit prism may not refract a lot of Shakespearean nuance, but her Alaskan-flavored show certainly captures the rapidity of its protagonist's descent.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Translated into Tlingit by Johnny Marks. Conceived and directed by Anita Maynard-Losh. Costumes, Nikki Morris; lighting design, Tobin D. Clark; sound design, Albert McDonnell. With Ishmael Hope, Richard Atoruk/Qaggun, Lance Twitchell, George Holly, Lily Hudson, Austin Tagaban and Sakara "Sky" Dunlap. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 18 at the National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. Call 202-357-3030 or visit

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