The Thane waffles, the Lady schemes, the King dies, the blood spills. The component parts all appear to be shipshape in Michael Kahn's handsome new staging of "Macbeth." Yet even as the ever-efficient Shakespeare Theatre sets the machinery of tragedy in motion, all the gauges indicate a vital element in short supply: electricity.
This being Kahn's handiwork, the production is always smooth and lucid. There are inspired choices, as when, in his bleak valedictory ("Life's but a walking shadow . . ."), Macbeth reveals the appalling depth of his degeneracy with a gasp-inducing thrust of a dagger. And it's all easy on the eyes, thanks to John Coyne's sleek playing space and Linda Cho's palette of basic black and white for royal robes and armor.
But this "Macbeth" is also confoundingly easy on the nerves: Macblah. You wonder, as the Macbeths and their henchmen cut a gory swath through the Scottish nobility, when this reign will start to feel like terror. It never really does. Scenes of slaughter that should chill and startle, such as the murder of Lady Macduff and her flaxen-haired babes, pass without arousing anything close to abject horror.
Even the three witches whom Macbeth consults for glimpses of his future are disappointingly domestic. Portrayed here by the estimable Sarah Marshall, Naomi Jacobson and Jewell Robinson, the hags are not only indistinguishable from one another, they are also evoked with a primness that would put a circle of parsons' wives to shame.
Most debilitating, however, is the pairing of Patrick Page's Macbeth and Kelly McGillis's Lady Macbeth, a combination that produces no arresting chemical reaction at all. McGillis, in her first role for Shakespeare since "The Duchess of Malfi" 21/2 years ago, is a one-note Lady. Although the actress has the bearing for the part -- when Macbeth declares, "Bring forth men-children only," you can imagine her surrounded by a brood of little linebackers -- she evinces a narrow emotional range. From her initial, rapturous strategizing to her final haunted derangement, this Lady Macbeth is always near hysterics. The tears come too easily for her. It's difficult to credit her as the plotting, incendiary seducer, the gasoline on Macbeth's fire.
Page fares better. His Macbeth is solid, soldierly, a man born to lead, who turns to jelly impressively in the banquet scene, when the terrified Macbeth thinks he sees the friend he's had murdered, Banquo, seated at the table. (Kahn plays down the occult throughout this production; in this scene, he departs from Shakespeare's instructions and leaves out Banquo's ghost.) And though Page's delivery of Macbeth's final speech fully expresses the character's nihilism, the actor is less memorable in Macbeth's moments of misgiving, those crucial episodes in which we are to commune fully with the tragic dimension of his nature.
The production, then, is on a sort of seesaw, perched between a few interludes of insight and others that feel run-of-the-mill. "Macbeth" is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, a model of brutal economy with little to distract an audience from Macbeth's march to ignominy and death. None of the other major characters -- Banquo (Glenn Fleshler), Malcolm (Brandon Demery), Macduff (Andrew Long) and Duncan (Ted van Griethuysen) -- is a particularly showy part, though Macduff possesses the affecting scene in which he receives the news of his family's execution. Long carries it off nicely, conveying for us the shellshocked bewilderment of the newly grieving.
The play's rewards are all in the way the Macbeths feed each other's needs, and when the synergy is off, the tension dissipates. Would Macbeth have had the stomach for regicide without Lady Macbeth breathing treachery in his ear? Would Lady Macbeth have dared imagine herself a queen had she not sensed the tyrannical streak in her husband's mien? Page and McGillis never establish the subcutaneous level of intimacy, that intuitive sense of each other's sensitivities and vanities, that would help to explain why they are so much more dangerous when placed together than when separated.
Lacking a combustible coupling to carry the evening, Kahn's production relies on the sorcery of the designers as well as the director's inventive tinkering around the edges. Coyne's set is, like the play itself, stark and unfussy. Its focal points are the steel skeleton of a castle chamber and a tree stripped of leaves. The floor is an all-white checkerboard that is illuminated in various patterns, and a white staircase that slides out from the gauzy black backdrop is used as the gateway to Duncan's offstage slaying.
Michael Chybowski's lighting is often a subtle mood enhancer, and Cho's severe 17th-century costumes convey something of the harshness of the upheaval that Duncan's kingdom experiences with the ascension of Macbeth. These elements blend beautifully at times, particularly in Kahn's quicksilver staging of Macbeth's coronation, in which Page and McGillis, decked out in regal splendor, are whisked in and out as if they were the celebrants in an ornate shotgun wedding.
Van Griethuysen and Long are the best of the major supporting actors, and in the smaller role of a Scottish nobleman, Richard Pelzman lends to the proceedings a needed air of uncommon decency. As for the larger, bleaker mission of "Macbeth," we'll just have to put on hold for a while that satisfying theater trip, the descent into soul-crushing darkness.
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, John Coyne; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Michael Chybowski; music and sound, Martin Desjardins; fight director, Paul Dennhardt. With Samuel Bednar Schachter, Michelle Shupe, Emery Battis, Edward James Hyland, Kip Pierson. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Oct. 24 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.