Saturday, August 8, 2015


Dressed to thrill: Parret & Pickering
William Shakespeare might as well have written Macbeth for the Festival Glen at UCSC. Who can resist witches, ghosts, blood and mayhem under the towering redwoods at night, under a canopy of stars?

The new Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of the play could not be any more atmospheric. Director Kirsten Brandt's staging of the durable drama of ambition, murder, and revenge in ancient Scotland comes roaring out of the trees and down the aisles, across Nina Ball's splendid stage and the ramparts above.

Rodolfo Ortega's sweeping, Game Of Thrones-like music soars over all, while the sound and lighting designs of Ortega and Kurt Landisman keeps thunder and lightning rumbling ominously through the trees between scenes. (Although, perhaps not as ominously as the real-life lightning storm that blew over the Glen Thursday night, canceling the last preview performance.)

B. Modern's costumes are a Shakespeare fangirl's dream of kilts, tartans, leather leggings, and velvet medieval gowns worked in gold.
Wohlrabe as Banquo's ghost

The show begins with a bang: the three shrieking witches are hauled down the hill and onto the stage by soldiers, who denounce them with Biblical quotes ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!"), and lock them into horned, cage-like headdresses.

This sets up the conflict between mysterious female energy and male military power when the witches are encountered by the troops of old King Duncan (Kurt Meeker), returning from a victory at the front.

Speaking in riddles, the witches prophesy that Macbeth (Steve Pickering), Thane of Glamis, will be king, and that his comrade-in-arms and fellow thane and general, Banquo, will found a dynasty of kings. Banquo is usually a male role, but in this gender-bending season, the general is a woman.

Greta Wohlrabe looks great in the part, strutting around like Brienne of Tarth, but since Banquo functions as the conscience of the play, the moral force that Macbeth abandons for glory, it's too bad she and Macbeth don't establish a deeper camaraderie from the outset.

Melinda Parret is a bold and effective Lady Macbeth. She starts plotting the minute she hears about the prophecy, calling on the gods and spirits to harden her natural female tendency toward mercy to do away with the old king while he sleeps under her roof, so Macbeth can ascend to the throne. Her murderous plan shocks her husband, at first, but ultimately seals both their dooms.

There are two traits anyone playing Macbeth needs—fire and tragedy. But Pickering seems a little complacent in the role. He never quite musters the intensity of a good man fatally tempted to hazard all for the sake of ambition. As a result, his waffling over his part in the bloody deed doesn't have the weight of a moral crisis, of a man grappling with the destruction of his own soul. He just seems wishy-washy.

However, Toby Onwumere (above) has fire to burn as Macduff, Thane of Fife, onetime ally and ultimate adversary to Macbeth. The production jolts to life whenever he's onstage. Brian Smolin (such a hit in this season's hilarious farce, The Liar), is very funny as the cranky Porter of the castle in the play's one comic scene.

And the witches (Patty Gallagher, Suzanne Sturn, and Mary Cavett, right) are pretty fabulous, draped in rags and flotsam and moondust, their voices amped up with an eerie reverb effect that echoes through the trees.

The entity formerly known as Shakespeare Santa Cruz is playing the last four productions it will ever give in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen this month. (The word is, the company will relocate to Delaveaga Park for the 2016 season.)

Since this production makes such excellent use of the Glen in all its wild, spooky glory, it serves as a fitting way for fans to bid a fond adieu to this marvelous performance space.

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