December 4, 2013

How "Macbeth" Vanquishes Ethan Hawke

You’ve got to love Ethan Hawke.  Or at least I do.  I can’t think of another actor working today who displays such obvious love for the theater—from his choice of challenging roles in plays ranging from Chekhov to Stoppard to the comradely slaps on the back he gives his fellow actors at curtain calls to his enthusiastic participation in cast parties (my husband K and I spotted him at one at the West Bank Cafe and he wasn’t making one of those obligatory drive-by appearances; in fact, he was just about the last person to leave).

As I said, you gotta love the guy. So it pains me to say this but it’s hard to love Hawke’s interpretation of Macbeth in Lincoln Center Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the overly ambitious nobleman who murders his way to the Scottish throne.  

There has been a rash of Macbeths over the last few years—Patrick Stewart, Alan Cumming and Kenneth Branagh in an acclaimed production due here this summer—and each actor has burrowed into the character’s troubled soul. Hawke, however, isn’t able to breach the surface.  

In fact, the whole production, directed by the usually reliable Jack O’Brien is, as a famous line from the play says, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Just as David Leveaux did with his production of Romeo and Juliet (which is closing this weekend, a month ahead of schedule) O’Brien has filled the stage with dazzling things to look at.

Seemingly real flowers wither and decay in the blink of an eye. Blazing torches, lasers and other fancy lighting by Japhy Weideman create an appropriately eerie mood. 

And the stunning gowns Catherine Zuber has designed for Lady Macbeth are to die for (although her costumes for the men are all over the place—“Game of Thrones” leather for daywear and “Downton Abbey-style” frock coats for evening).

Where the production really falls down is in its performances. Nearly everyone on stage, most egregiously Hawke, races through his or her speeches as though afraid of forgetting the lines. 

Moreover, their voices not only lack projection but, with a few exceptions (Richard Easton’s dignified Duncan, Daniel Sunjata’s macho Macduff [click here for a Q&A with him] and, most especially Bianca Amato as an affecting Lady Macduff) they’re missing resonance and emotion as well.

It may be unfair to make comparisons to the Twelfth Night and Richard III that Mark Rylance has brought to Broadway from London’s Globe theater, but speech after speech in this Macbeth made me wonder if that old canard about American’s being unable to do Shakespeare as well as the Brits might be true. 

Except that Lady Macbeth is played by the celebrated British actress Anne-Marie Duff, who, in her American debut, fares little better. Her sleepwalking scene left most of the audience yawning.

As always, the crowd pleasers are the three witches who predict Macbeth’s fate. O’Brien has cast men—Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jenningsin the roles and they, particularly Glover, camp it up. 
But, as my sister Joanne said, at least they’re lively (click here to read about them).  Apparently deciding to make full use of the best card he's been dealt, O'Brien has added them to almost every scene. So, after a while, even they wear out their welcome.

Still, there is one area in which Hawke acquits himself well.  Popular with young women, who love his romantic movies “Before Sunrise” and "Before Sunset;” and with guys, who like his turns in horror films like “Sinister” and “The Purge,” he is drawing a young and racially diverse audience to the Vivian Beaumont theater where the production is scheduled to run until Jan. 12. The college-age girls sitting next to me swooned every time Hawke came onstage.

Theater lovers who are fussier about their Shakespeare would probably do better to head to the Belasco Theater, where the Rylance productions are playing in rep.  Or to wait for some other chance—and I'm sure it will come—to love Hawke again.


Anonymous said...

I saw the production twice and absolutely loved it. So did the audiences I was a part of (two standing ovations). Brian D. James was phenomenal and Daniel Sunjata commands the stage like almost no one I've ever seen. Beyond his presence and charisma, he is just a supremely skilled actor and it shows in this play. His range is off the charts actually (Graceland to Shakespeare? Hellloooo?).

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, glad you saw it, glad you liked it and very glad you took the time to tell me so. We may disagree about this production but I, too, admire the actors you cited and look forward to seeing all of them in future shows. Albest, jan