Alec Baldwin makes for a vital "Macbeth" in George C. Wolfe's pulsating production of Shakespeare's dark masterpiece.

Alec Baldwin makes for a vital “Macbeth” in George C. Wolfe’s pulsating production of Shakespeare’s dark masterpiece. Putting his forceful acting style to good use as the ambitious thane so strong he could be undone only by his own greed, Baldwin is the solid foundation of this sold-out staging (closing March 29), a perfect anchor for the wonderfully go-for-broke performance of Angela Bassett as Lady Macbeth.

Tough and forceful in her early scenes as the ruthless Lady who pushes Macbeth to all sorts of bloodthirsty social climbing, Bassett is electrifying by the time she reaches madness, performing her “Out, damn spot” speech with a bold mix of anguish, lunacy and anger. If she and Baldwin come up somewhat short in romantic chemistry, they’re a perfect match as theater’s most driven power couple.

In Wolfe’s staging, this is a thundering (literally) “Macbeth,” from the tribal percussion that heralds the arrival of the weird sisters through the raucous sword fight that ends Macbeth’s bloody rise. Wolfe has stripped the play to its core — the drums, spare set, shadowy lighting and rock-star-ready leatherwear lend a tough, outlaw quality to one of Shakespeare’s harshest tragedies — and the cast displays the same intense focus.

Dressed in rags that make them look like urban homeless, the three witches (Midori Nakamura, Latonya Borsay, Ana Reeder) are even weirder than usual, writhing and howling and setting a fine creepy mood. The boom of loud music and furious stomping of running soldiers quickly pushes the production to a lively pace.

Baldwin gets off to a slightly slower start, initially registering little nuance but soon enough suggesting the torturous guilt of a good man who’s allowed himself to do evil. When Macbeth comes unglued after arranging the murder of his friend Banquo (a stalwart Liev Schreiber), Baldwin lets Macbeth’s surety crumble brick by brick, until all he clings to is the witches’ dubious premonition of his invincibility.

Lady Macbeth’s breakdown comes swifter, and Bassett makes the slide convincing. Even as her Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to murder, Bassett layers the ruthlessness with a nervous guilt that, by her final, haunted scene has completely enveloped her character.

Wolfe draws fine work from the rest of the cast, as well — from Schreiber and Jeffrey Nordling (as the grieving, vengeful Macduff) all the way to the precocious young Adam Lamberg in a brief scene as Macduff’s doomed little boy.

Macbeth

Joseph Papp Public Theater's Martinson Hall; 208 seats; $40 top

Production

A Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of the play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by George C. Wolfe.

Creative

Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Scott Zielinski; sound, Kurt Fischer; original music, Carlos Valdez; production stage manager, Erica Schwartz. Producer, Wolfe; artistic producer, Rosemarie Tichler. Opened March 15, 1998; reviewed March 6. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Cast

Cast: Midori Nakamura (First Witch), Latonya Borsay (Second Witch), Ana Reeder (Third Witch), Rocco Sisto (Duncan, King of Scot-land), Michael Hall (Malcolm), Adam Dannheisser (Lennox), Nathan Hinton (Ross), Alec Baldwin (Macbeth), Liev Schreiber (Banquo), Angela Bassett (Lady Macbeth), Greg Porretta (Angus), Jeffrey Nordling (Macduff), Rene Augesen (Lady Macduff).
With: Zach Braff, Jason Butler Harner, Anil Kumar, Adam Lamberg, Dan Moran.

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