Twisting a classic

Theatre Junction opens season with a winner

Last week’s production of Radio Macbeth at the Theatre Junction Grand marks the Canadian debut of New York City’s acclaimed SITI Company an ensemble that’s been creating original work under the direction of Anne Bogart since 1992.

The play opens with a man in a fedora and long jacket stepping onto a darkened stage his face hidden in shadow. He repositions a microphone then leans casually against a wooden table. Voices emerge from backstage. Drunken partiers? Vandals? The man stiffens leaps from the table and escapes offstage.

The new arrivals stumble through the dark crashing into furniture until someone finds a light switch. They shed their vests and jackets rearrange chairs and chat amongst themselves. Who are these people?

Finally a woman picks up a binder and reads from its pages: “When shall we three meet again/ In thunder lightning or in rain?” As the others pick up her cue and familiar dialogue rolls past their lips we realize these are neither drunkards nor vandals and that this is The Scottish Play.

Though abbreviated to half of its usual three hours this is the Macbeth we know — full of murder war and betrayal ghostly apparitions and daggers of the mind. But onstage instead of seeing the characters of legend we see flawed actors with their own agendas performing (or perhaps rehearsing?) a radio play.

The result is a stunning give and take. When their characters are silent the actors are often bored and unengaged. Kelly Maurer stirs her coffee chews on an apple. When it’s her turn to play however she calmly strides to the microphone and gives a thoroughly chilling portrayal of the three witches shifting her voice so wildly that you almost believe she’s been possessed by their spirits.

Whether it’s ghostly possession or merely the power of Shakespeare’s prose there are moments when actors and audience alike hang on every word. When Macbeth (Stephen Webber the fedora-clad man) is visited by the ghost of Banquo (Barney O’Hanlon) when Lady Macbeth (Ellen Lauren) gives her tragic sleepwalking soliloquy when Macduff (Will Bond) despairs at his family’s murder these are moments of heartbreaking greatness. Then just as quickly as it came about the spell is broken. Webber is but an actor the stage is but a stage but the audience remains poised on the edge of their seats ready to be drawn in again.

This strength is also a hazard. Macbeth is already a heavily layered play and to add another is risky business. It’s a joy to watch Akiko Aizawa’s all-business stage manager thrust into the spotlight as a minor character but the strange tension between Webber Bond and Lauren is often hard to penetrate. Admittedly asking the audience to fill in the blanks is a welcome challenge but it might have been nice to have a few less blanks.

The intentionally sparse stage is a gift to the performers. Chairs become a siege wall shrubs even swords in the climactic battle between Macbeth and Macduff. When Webber leaps onto a bare table under a spotlight Macbeth’s ego and agony are amplified to the far corners of the theatre. Likewise the sound design by co-director Darron L. West is staggering in its power and subtlety.

Shakespeare is an enormously over-produced playwright. Yes his words and themes are brilliant but so are the words and themes of dozens of other writers. When his words ring from every stage between your nephew’s junior high gymnasium to the Globe Theatre in London they become diluted and lose their power.

Radio Macbeth reminds us of why Shakespeare is great. The power of his words alone on a bare stage transform the actors into figures of greatness transport us to a grim world of conflict and death and remind us that this fantasy world isn’t all that distant from our own.