The Wilma Theater has produced a lot of work by esteemed playwrights in its 31 years, but the world’s most-produced playwright was, until now, strangely absent. Now, the Wilma tackles Shakespeare for the first time with a mostly effective, if inconsistent, production of Macbeth.
With the opening interpretation of the direction “Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches,” the pairing of the Wilma and the Bard is off to a good start. In the imaginative choreography of Brian Sanders, the sisters don’t just tell the future—they defy gravity, crawling primate-like down the walls of Mimi Lien’s bi-level set and hovering in mid-air.
Whenever the witches appear, the production comes alive. They speak with such conviction that we feel why characters would be driven to murder by their words. In the production’s finest moment, they conjure a line of eight ghostly kings who glide across the back of the stage in eerie silence as the witches declare that Macbeth (C.J. Wilson) will be king of Scotland. They seem both of this world and not, incarnations of the region’s pagan past—a past stirred up by a bloody civil war just won by newly minted King Duncan (Michael Rudko).
Macbeth may be Duncan’s ally and a war hero, but egged on by the witches’ words and his calculating wife (Jacqueline Antaramian), Macbeth murders the king in his sleep and assumes the throne.
The prophecy is confusing—Macbeth should beware rival Macduff (Albert Jones), but won’t die unless some seemingly impossible things happen. Still, paranoia drives Macbeth to systematically eradicate friends and enemies alike, with carnage that makes Hamlet look like a church picnic.
Under Blanka Zizka’s direction, the Macbeths take a back seat to a number of strong performances in the supporting roles. Particularly good are Lindsay Smiling as Macbeth’s betrayed friend Banquo and Luigi Sottile as Duncan’s son Malcolm. This is no great surprise—both come from Temple’s theater program, which has turned out some of the area’s finest Shakespearean actors. Smiling’s natural performance has a total command of the language, and Sottile, a local who improves with each performance, is superb in a role that’s usually subsidiary, giving Malcolm added depth
Jones’ Macduff is likewise excellent. As Malcolm counsels Macduff that he must accept the murder of his family like a man, his shocked reply, “I must feel it like a man,” is such a mass of despair that stoicism proves far more moving than hysterics.
Zizka is one of the area’s most innovative and visually arresting directors, but though her production has moments of striking originality, it can be disappointingly conventional. J. Alex Cordaro’s fight choreography is as dull as the witches’ is inventive. The final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff, which should be a clash-of-titans moment, feels routine. Though the actors execute the moves adequately, the choreography lacks the balletic artistry necessary to hold our interest when we already know the outcome. An exception is the slaughter of Macduff’s family by disturbingly calm assassins—after murdering Macduff’s young son, they gleefully depart on the boy’s scooter.
Unlike past Macbeths full of sound and fury, this production is conspicuously cold. The Macbeths aren’t so much a married couple as business partners in crime. Macbeth responds to his wife’s death with barely more than a shrug, and when he appears to lose his sanity when the ghost of Banquo shows up at a dinner party, Lady Macbeth’s reaction is more annoyance than concern.
The production design is similarly chilly. This Scotland is a gloomy, dark place with little color aside from red, red blood. A second level looming just above the actors’ heads gives the impression that the characters exist in a cramped, subterranean world—a sort of dungeon of the soul. Daniel Perelstein’s menacing sound adds to the suffocating gloom, as do Oana Botez-Ban’s gray costumes, thrown into contrast by one scene set in England, when the palette suddenly blazes with light pastels.
With the debut of Shakespeare at the Wilma, the changing role of co-founder Jiri Zizka and the fact that the upcoming season includes two productions helmed by guest directors, expect more surprises this season from one of the city’s most acclaimed companies.
Through Nov. 13.
265 N. Broad St.
Calendar: Sept. 2-9