Review: Havre troupe stages a more intimate version of ‘Macbeth’

Review: Havre troupe stages a more intimate version of ‘Macbeth’

Jay Pyette

November 4, 2008, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian

In a town not traditionally known as a bustling haven of thespian activity, Missoula theatergoers are now presented with their second “Macbeth” in as many months.

On Sept. 3, Bozeman-based Montana Shakespeare in the Parks brought its production of the Bard’s blockbuster bloodbath to the University of Montana Oval for a free, outdoor performance that was attended by upward of a thousand blanket-basking people. This past weekend, Havre-based Montana Actors’ Theatre officially opened its own production of the play at the Crystal Theatre on Higgins Avenue.

Same material, same town. Same show? Not at all.

At the September performance, the attending throngs witnessed a troupe of seasoned, touring professionals performing under the vaulting roof of Montana’s big sky, in the shade of leafy campus trees on a large, portable set. That context demands a certain declamatory style of performance: high on volume and exaggerated in gesture, the better to transmit meaning to those latecomers sitting in the distant back rows.

The contrast could hardly be greater at the Crystal Theatre, where 90-some seats are situated in rows no deeper than four, surrounding a low, black, unadorned stage that juts narrowly from one corner of the red-curtained, black-walled room. When Shakespeare’s famously creepy witches emerge from the very bowels of the stage to incant with a whisper, “fair is foul and foul is fair,” it’s hard not to feel almost too close for comfort.

Under the direction of Grant Olson, the current production takes all possible advantage of its intimate environs. The cast, headed by Jared Branden and Tashia Gates as Macbeth and his Lady, speaks and moves plainly, without vocal affect or grandiloquent gesture. Action moves on, around, across and even under the stage, thoroughly breaking down the barrier between audience and performance.

The result is a production where facial twitches and slight shifts of the eyes become the primary language of subtext. For those who struggle with Shakespeare’s anachronistic language and poetic constructions, this naturalistic, conversational approach will be a welcome revelation.

Branden makes for a coarse Macbeth, a wild-haired bruin who pauses before every poetic utterance, breaking his sentences into bits as if slow to formulate his thoughts. Occasionally, Branden’s sputtering rhythms tripped him up in last Thursday’s preview performance; words were misspoken or repeated. But where he missed notes, he still managed to pound out a barbaric sense of melody as he prowled his confined castle, seeking the next victim in his paranoid push for power.

Gates is equally fine as a blond tigress who purrs provocation in her husband’s ear, her eyes steady and clear even when she’s seeing things that aren’t there. In a consistently strong supporting cast, Reid Reimers shines particularly, exuding steady wisdom and righteous power as Macduff.

The production also benefits from the ambient percussion-playing of Sarina Hart, who doubles as Lady Macduff; her quiet pounding paces the footfalls of fate that lead, ultimately, to her husband’s violent and protracted swordfight with Macbeth. By that point, I found myself wishing for a little extra space between the stage and my seat-back.

Indeed, if there are quibbles to be had with the production, they come from the very intimacy that makes this a worthy and revealing theatrical experience. In a cast where natural facial hair – or the lack thereof – seems almost a subtext unto itself, the hilariously fake beard pasted to the cheeks of one of the Lords is an unfortunate distraction. So too with the makeshift daggers and a few other unrealistic props. While the realities of a small company working on a small budget dictate a few cut corners, one can’t ignore the fact that a naturalistic performance style pretty much demands realistic props, particularly in such close quarters.

Ultimately, it takes a lot worse than that to hobble Shakespeare’s most reliable warhorse. This is a show worth seeing, and a promising start for MAT’s first season as co-resident company at the Crystal.

Something wicked this way comes

The Montana Actors’ Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in performances Nov. 5-8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 Wednesday and Thursday, $15 Friday and Saturday. Student rush tickets are $5 every night, subject to availability.

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