by Matthew Falduto
Photos by S. Benjamin Farrar
Iowa City – I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating – there is something magical about enjoying theatre in the outdoors, with chirping birds and a gentle breeze adding to the experience. The sun sets as the play progresses, which is perfectly appropriate for a tragedy like Macbeth, which was presented by Riverside Theatre on the festival stage in City Park last weekend.
Macbeth tells the story of an ambitious husband and wife who murder their way into power before ultimately losing all, including their lives. Lady Macbeth, in particular, has become an iconic character in our culture – the scheming powerful woman who does what is necessary to get ahead, leading her husband from behind the scenes. But this play is not her story, but instead the story of her husband, Macbeth.
Patrick DuLaney portrays Macbeth. DuLaney is an excellent actor, able to create complex characters effortlessly. He knows how to use all the tricks of the trade and has demonstrated that many times on many different stages in the area and outside of our little theatre bubble. All of that made some of his choices for Macbeth seem, well, strange. He played him as excessively buffoonish, and while this is a legitimate choice, it undermined the drama of the play at a few crucial moments. Perhaps the best example of this is the moment when Macbeth learns that Macduff was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped’. Macbeth realizes this means Macduff can and almost certainly will kill him. DuLaney’s choice at this moment is to look at the audience and comically shrug, as if to say, “Can you believe this?” The audience laughed in response to that action, undermining the tragedy of the moment. It’s always hard to know what is an actor’s choice and what is the decision of the director. Press reports have suggested that director Sean Christopher Lewis wanted to make Shakespeare more accessible. Perhaps that desire for accessibility drove these decisions. If so, I have to suggest that this was not the best method to create accessibility.
Lady Macbeth is wonderfully played by Saren Nofs-Snyder. Her Lady Macbeth is powerful and overbearing early in the play. Using all of her skills, she whips Macbeth into shape to be sure he acts as she wishes him to. Nofs-Snyder and DuLaney have an effective chemistry, and it’s enjoyable to watch them play off each other. Later in the scene where it’s clear the guilt is attacking her soul, Nofs-Snyder provides a harrowing experience for the audience as we witness Lady Macbeth’s loss of self. It’s an impressive performance, completely in line with the text. We feel for Lady Macbeth despite her evil deeds – her story is tragic – and it’s Nofs-Snyder considerable skill that emotionally carries us there.
There are many excellent supporting performances in this production. Except for the actors portraying Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo, all of the other actors play multiple roles, requiring each of them to demonstrate an ability to easily slide from one character to another. No one does this as well as Tim Budd, who is commanding as Macbeth’s first victim, the powerful King Duncan, but then shows off his talent for humor as the hilarious Porter. Later he creates another unique characterization of the Doctor. And finally his Hecate is thrilling and freaky and memorable. Years from now, I will remember Tim Budd’s Hecate.
Another strong performance is Kehry Anson Lane as Macduff. In what is the show’s most gripping scene, Macduff learns that his children and wife have been murdered by Macbeth. Lane plays this scene perfectly, beginning with disbelief, transforming into howling pain, and finally settling into devastating anger. The parade of emotions are conveyed expertly by Lane, who uses all of the actor’s weapons to portray this crucial scene.
The three witches – played by Heather Michele Lawler, Krista Neumann and Carrie Houchins-Witt – are at times humorously delightful and downright scary. Each of these three actresses expertly switch personas to portray a variety of other characters. Lawler, in particular, does an excellent job as some of the male characters. The final two members of the ensemble – Barrington Vaxter and K Michael Moore – also add much to the show with their portrayals of Banquo and Malcom respectively. This is an extremely talented cast from top to bottom.
The set design is simple and evocative. Two large set pieces transform from doorways to set dressing to tables. Dresses hang against a black backdrop, which is interesting if somewhat confusing at first. Later as they play progresses and the sun sets, under the stage lights, the dresses appear to be ghostly figures hovering around the action. It’s one of many smart choices by S. Benjamin Farrar, who doubles as set and lighting designer.
The cast is mostly costumed in different types of military garb. I’m no expert, but a friend of mine opined at intermission that h believed a number of different countries’ military uniforms were used. Watching the actors sword fight in garb that was originally worn by men with guns lends a universality to the play. It’s a smart costuming choice by April Bonasera. And speaking of sword fights, they were fun to watch and expertly executed by the cast. Kudos to fight captains Moore and Houchins-Witt.
There is much to enjoy in Lewis’ version of Macbeth. Do not fear the language will be indecipherable – the actors are all adept at making Shakespearean words sound conversational to our modern ears. The play moves at a quick clip as well – you won’t be sitting for three hours. So come to the park and enjoy Shakespeare the way it’s been enjoyed for centuries – under the stars, performed by talented actors, and with your friends and family.