Theater, Classical
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Photograph: Manuel Harlan

There’s (nearly) nothing wrong with Alan Cumming’s quasi-solo version of the Scottish Play that a body mike couldn’t fix. As he dashes about the barnlike Rose Theater (decked out as a sickly green psych ward) in the Time Warner Center, the formidable performer works his way through an edited version of the text in which he plays all the parts, from First Murderer to Macbeth himself. Given the large space and physical demands, the language suffers. Cumming has an exceptional voice: musical, nimble, sensuous, with great range. His characterizations are sharp and sometimes surprising (Duncan as a languid twit; Lady M as a campy sexpot), but one strains to hear the subtleties of the text through the visual noise of the concept and the spatial infelicities of the venue. Were the actor able to speak the speech intimately, amplified à la Richard Foreman, the audience might get inside this lunatic’s head.

Jointly directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, the staging idea is one of the hoariest in the conceptualized-Bard handbook: setting the play in a madhouse. Here, a man (Cumming) is admitted to the loony bin with lacerations on his chest. Two staff members (Ali Craig, Myra McFadyen) alternate kindly ministrations with more ominous surveillance through a large window. Left to his own devices, Cumming writhes, weeps, plays with dolls and recites Macbeth. It turns the bloody tragedy into one long abreaction to an unspecified past trauma.

Of course there’s plenty of violence, madness and assorted horror in Macbeth to accommodate the new context, but the directors and their star fail to establish their world-rules. Are the warders caring for the man or experimenting on him? Are they aware that he’s babbling Shakespeare all day? Are we in his head or theirs? Finally, all the clever touches seem like window dressing. As a workout for a talented star, I’m sure this version has its value. But a fresh take on the classic requires a different sort of witchcraft.—David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote


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Not compelling and too often boring - too much irrelevant business that distracts from Shakespeare's narrative drive, long dead zones of silent pantomime (meant, I imagine, to suggest "Act/Scene" breaks but quite unnecessary and fidget-making), too subtle shades of difference between the star's many roles to clarify the drama, too large a space for Cumming's voice to project intelligibly, and too many barely-heard lines delivered with his back to the audience. The two supporting actors were miked, but not Mr. Cumming - I don't advocate miking, but I was in the third row Orchestra and heard no more than 75% of what he said (and probably did no better with the two miked actors): it wasn’t the Scottish accent, but the incompatibility of his vocal style and body position with the acoustics of the space. Also, the cuts from the original play magnified the confusion of the plot. I was checking my watch frequently from about 20 minutes into the 1:40 running time, aghast at how little time had passed each time I looked, and urging MacDuff's forces to get on with the business of ending it all. It wasn't all bad, and Mr. Cumming is undoubtedly a seductive actor who relishes the grand gesture, but this was a rather pretentious and pointless star vehicle that just didn't convince me on any level.