Theater Review: Macbeth by the Ensemble Theatre Company

Yesterday, I caught the Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth at the New Vic in Santa Barbara…

From a purely stagecraft perspective, this production is striking. Director Jonathan Fox has decided to use projections as a major visual element, tapping Hana S. Kim for scenic and projection design. The stage consists of four roughly textured floor to ceiling panels (two on each side) that focus the stage by cutting into it from each side toward upstage center, with a visible gap between them that allows for entrances and exits.

Onto these panels and stage are projected scenic backgrounds, some realistic–a building corridor–others more metaphorical or textual–sunbaked cracked earth, what seemed to be a tangle of dried branches. Very effective, very evocative, especially during the witch sequences as they allowed for the vision of the midnight hags to seeming fade into and out of the scene.

Fox and Kim also employ the use of scrims, both full-stage width and narrower panels, onto which images are projected, like floating daggers, Banquo’s ghost, apparitions, and witches. While I think there were some missed opportunities during the banquet scene, these visual effects were very, well, effective.

Fox uses a stripped-down, nine-person cast, with every actor playing multiple roles (save for the lead). AK Murtadha and Leslie Gangl Howe stand out as Macduff and his wife, respectively. I’m most definitely looking forward to seeing Murtadha again on stage. This small cast necessitates a number of textual edits and character/scene switches that are outstanding. When Macduff arrives at Inverness the morning after the murder, it’s not with Lennox as in the text, but with his wife, child, and baby, who he later shoos from the scene to safety. Later, instead of Ross talking about the strangeness of recent events with the old man, it’s Banquo, so that upon the old man and Macduff’s exit, Banquo’s left alone onstage to go into his “Thou hast it now” speech. Smart and well-done.

The seemingly Middle Eastern contemporary setting (the use of desert camo and what looked like a burqa on Lady Macduff) didn’t really work for me. I think all the references to Scotland were removed, but without any faces of color (save for Murtadha), I wasn’t sure if the dress was trying to make a statement about Middle Eastern in-fighting or Western neo-imperialism.

That said, this is a very good production in a wonderful venue. You’re running out of time, however: the show closes next weekend.

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