Howard Univerity's newly formed Office of Theatrical Productions has made an impressive if not entirely successful start with its ambitious "Macbeth," which opened the first of three performances Thursday night.

Director James W. Butcher transposed the play from the Scottish moors to an arid West African setting, a choice that infuses it with a special vitality. The offstage drumbeats, rhythmic dances and African-flavored music are the high points of the evening, helping to create an environment in which the tragedy of overreaching ambition could flourish.

But it doesn't. "Macbeth" is a play about guilt, terror, cruelty and ruthlessness, and this production lacks the emotional textures needed to make the tragedy come alive. William Marshall has an imposing presence and a rich voice, but his Macbeth is hollow. The drive that leads Macbeth to apparently conscienceless murder and the tormenting fear that is the core of his disintegration are missing from Marshall's rather dignified portrayal.

This dispassionate treatment seems to have affected others in the cast as well; Carol Foster Sidney's Lady MacBeth shows no sign of madness and thus her suicide seems incongruous. As Macduff, Ron Canada sometimes seems uncomfortable with the language, but exhibits more passion than the others.

The most effective moment in the production comes late in the second act, a stylized battle scene with thundering drums and leaping warriors. The soldiers shout "Asoo-anga!" -- or at least that's what it sounds like -- which may not be a word familiar to the Thane of Cawdor, but seems an effective rallying cry.

MACBETH, by William Shakespeare. Directed by James W. Butcher; set and light design by Ron Truitt; costumes by Peter Zakutansky, musical conception and direction by Dorothy A. Walker; choreography by 10th World.

With William Marshall, Carol Foster Sidney, Ron Canada, Joseph A. Walker, Anton Perkins, Kent Jackman, Fair, Carol Battle, Karen Freeman, Stacey McClendon, Jewell Shepperd.