Shakespeare in Washington Theater

'Macbeth,' Naked But Not Exciting

(Ray Gniewek - Washington Shakespeare Company)

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 22, 2007

Washington has decked Shakespeare out in all sorts of guises in the past six months, from dancers to orchestras to tiny ninjas. So perhaps it's fitting that, as the festival wraps up, one company is stripping a Shakespeare work down to the bare essentials.

In the current offering from Washington Shakespeare Company, a cast of intrepid actors essays a wholly uncut "Macbeth" in the nude.

Not a jot of clothing is to be seen in director José Carrasquillo's staging, which is frustrating and dramatically blunt. Since much of the action is fueled by the protagonists' concern with power and status, for instance, going the Full MacMonty lowers the stakes of the story. Clothes remain primary signifiers of an individual's place in a culture, so once apparel is cast aside, social boundaries become less clear.

Fortunately, the production possesses an eerie visual grandeur, at least on a stagewide level. When the 10 actors are not channeling garb-free Scots, they stand motionless among a thicket of towering, emaciated sculptures modeled on the figures of Alberto Giacometti (Marie Schneggenburger is the sculptor, and Giorgos Tsappas the set designer). The resulting vista looks like an uncanny cross between the Hirshhorn and Easter Island, and the eldritch factor deepens with the show's actor-generated sound effects: whistlings and hissings and isolated bits of percussion.

Ayun Fedorcha's piebald lighting, combined with the dusting of paint here and there on the actors' skin, furthers the defamiliarization -- these bodies look spookier than the ones most of us glimpse in the mirror after a shower. But the aesthetic (developed organically from an involuntary image of a "fantastical forest," according to Carrasquillo's program notes) resonates in a recognizable way, too: These Caledonians suggest human vulnerability in a merciless universe.

It's as though Carrasquillo, turning to a different Shakespeare play, borrowed Lear's definition of man as "a poor, bare, forked animal" under the "extremity of the skies."

Such an animal is Macbeth (Daniel Eichner), whose run-in with three witches (Ashley Robinson, Heather Haney and ManShu Chang) prompts him and Lady Macbeth (Kathleen Akerley) to murder Duncan, King of Scotland (Christopher Henley). The subsequent offing of Banquo (Sasha Olinick) -- whose apprehensive line about "naked frailties . . . that suffer in exposure" seems relevant to Carrasquillo's vision -- plunges the Macbeths deeper in evil, and accelerates civil war.

Playing multiple roles, however, most of Carrasquillo's actors don't compensate enough for their dishabille -- either through delivery or physicality. The snarling witches do adopt crouching, simian gaits, and the two murderers (Jay Hardee and Denman C. Anderson) have exaggerated hangdog postures, but the other characters are a blur.

Even the Macbeths seem bland. Eichner has one forceful moment, when he grabs a murderer by the hair, but otherwise he fails to display the brilliant warrior who becomes a tyrant -- and the famous monologues feel desultory. Although she sobers down in time to sleepwalk, Akerley gives a bizarrely flippant spin to Lady Macbeth's early scenes, a smile on her lips even when she's beseeching unseen spirits to fill her with direst cruelty.

Such joie de vivre seems more apt when Akerley plays Hecate, queen of the witches (a character whose scenes are often considered a non-Shakespearean interpolation). It's a doubling that meshes with the production's slant on evil: Eye of newt, toe of frog and other creepy cauldron ingredients notwithstanding, the weird sisters here seem to stand for primitivism and earthly human brutality, rather than any separate metaphysical darkness.

Nudity is a pretty conspicuous trait, though, so when naked witches appear alongside naked humans, they all seem to fall into the same order of being.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Directed by José Carrasquillo; prop design by Marie Schneggenburger. With Lee Ordeman. About 2 1/2 hours. Through July 15 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.washingtonshakespeare.org.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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