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Spoils of war

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

Opened June 25 at the Old Globe’s outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Brian Kulick’s production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is set in a World War I psychiatric hospital for PTSD wounded (Kulick is longtime artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company).

Somewhere in Scotland, the pristine, white ward contains eight beds in which patients sleep, suffering both physical wounds and what was then, I believe, termed battle fatigue. Perhaps they sleep, perhaps they dream their war experiences as well as the entire tragedy that Kulick unfolds. It’s a clever concept and a challenge for him to sustain over the evening, and for this audience member to fully embrace. Nonetheless, the play’s the thing, the language is excellent and well spoken and the familiar speeches are gripping and poetic

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Jonathan Cake as Macbeth (Photos by Jim Cox)

Among the wounded are the three combatants (Makha Mthembe, Amy Blackman, and Suzelle Palacios) who deliver the initial prophecy to the heroic Macbeth (Jonathan Cake) and Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney); to wit, that Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, shall become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland and that Banquo will never be king, but will be the sire of kings. The three ladies disappear from their wheelchairs as if by magic, one of Kulick’s magic tricks achieved through distraction.

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Cake and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Lady Macbeth

Made aware of the prophecy, the power hungry Lady Macbeth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) awaits her slightly wounded, much bewildered husband and spurs him to action in order to help speed prophetic things along. Under her direction, Macbeth slays their houseguest, King Duncan (the imposing James Preston Bates) and then proceeds to destroy others who may suspect Macbeth and/or stand in his way to complete, totalitarian rule. These include friends, kinsman and comrades. Both Macbeths become unhinged, and madness ensues.

The pragmatic mind rebels. Apparently we are still in the asylum, which turns red (Arnulfo Maldonado, scenic designer; Jason Lyons, lighting) even as the initial murders are done, with Lady Macbeth drawing an enormous red curtain over the formerly white walls of the asylum (even the floor turns red at the interval).

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Cake with Clifton Duncan as Macduff

Patients morph into courtiers for the famous banquet scene, replete with an enormous, stage-wide table whose revolving allows for the presence and disappearance of the dead Banquo, who is seen only by Macbeth. Banquo’s son Fleance (Ajinkya Desai) has eluded Macbeth’s murderers and eventually becomes King, but only after opposition gathers, Dunsinane forest advances on the castle, or asylum, and Macbeth is defeated in battle by Macduff (Clifton Duncan), a man who was “not of woman born.” A prolonged duel with pistols instead of swords doesn’t work, but no matter, the later witchy prophecy is fulfilled and the play is finito. I do miss the view of Balboa Park, but that’s just fussy old me. The improved sound system works fine (designers Sten Severson and David Thomas).

One of high points of the play – the revelation to Macduff that his entire household, wife, children and even servants, have been brutally murdered – is handled exceptionally well. Duncan (Globe production of “The Scottsboro Boys”), who plays Macduff, is a fine actor, as are many others in the huge company.

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Cake with cast members

In the real world of entertainment, the Macbeths, for instance, are stars of television and film. Cake has classical creds, too, having trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and played many Shakespeare roles in his native England and on the
East Coast. He is handsome, speaks the words beautifully (including the slowest “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” ever heard, and looks great in costume designer Oana Botez’s WWI uniform, mostly sans shirt). The diminutive Blake, who received her master’s of fine arts from UCSD, is less impressive as Lady Macbeth, lacking the evil gravitas and command we have come to expect from the role.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.39.23 AMDespite its shortcomings, “Macbeth” is still Shakespeare’s tragedy played under the stars. It merits our attention.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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