Theater Review: MACBETH (Independent Shakespeare Co. at Griffith Park in Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on August 15, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


It seems odd to say that I was enchanted and beguiled with Independent Shakespeare Co.’s (ISC’s) production of Macbeth, which opened this past weekend at the Dell in Griffith Park (site of L.A.’s old zoo). You would think perhaps horrified. After all, this is a tale of treachery, malice, magic and murder, as one couple obsesses with power — and their guilt after doing the unthinkable. Sure, it could have been more tense, but the forested enclave surrounding the small outdoor stage is a perfect setting for the mayhem. What ISC Managing Director David Melville is really going for here is something else which pays off handsomely: clarity and subtext of the language. Even with some editing of characters and lines, the production still clocks in at two and a half hours (and this is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy!). Not for once did my mind wander; I was invested the entire time, which flew by.

Kalean Ung (Lady Macbeth), Sam Breen (Macbeth)

The play is about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, but as I see it, Melville is also interested in the power of suggestion. Here, the three weird sisters — or witches — that inform Macbeth of his future as Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland are seen throughout the play, inhabiting other roles, which I translated as this: the witches’ declaration was the spur that Macbeth needed to be receptive to a further — and deadly — suggestion by his wife to kill King Duncan (married couple Sam Breen and Kalean Ung play the roles to the hilt — literally). Since Banquo also sees the witches near the top of the play, we know it’s not all in Macbeth’s head, but the seed has been planted. And this is why the “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” scene — which has the witches magically floating bloody daggers with snickering complicity — is a coup de théâtre. The Three Witches are a blast, switching effortlessly between roles: I tip a pointy hat to Carene Mekertichyan, Bukola Ogunmola, and Sabra Williams.

Bukola Ogunmola (Witch)

While Shakespeare could have used the central idea of the witches’ prophecy as a vehicle for exploring the perennial philosophical problem of free will vs determinism, he instead chooses to focus on his titular character’s treachery and madness. This has the effect of making Macbeth far darker than Hamlet and King Lear, despite the shared theme of madness. With so many characters dying left and right, it could perhaps be compared to the Bard’s Titus Andronicus, whose titular character also oversees plenty of murder and bloodlust. Even though Melville has actually tamed down some of the more vicious infanticides, blood, indeed, will have blood. And his staging is magnificent, using the hillside for dramatic entrances. We also loved Macbeth’s mad banquet scene in which a murdered ghost appears and disappears to great effect.

Hideyoshi Akai (Macduff), Sam Breen (Macbeth)

The only drawback, besides a bit of stilted acting and mic inconsistencies, was some slight confusion. I know this play rather well, and I had trouble figuring out the roles that some of the actors were playing until later. Melville’s creepy score and scary stereophonic sound effects helped to create a Halloween air, and Bosco Flanagan’s lighting helped enormously, as there were no sets (well, there were boards on which to trod). The icy blue trees turning to dark reds were awesome. Garry Lennon‘s costumes actually summoned up medievalism even with a slight patina of modernity. And the fight scene between Macduff and Macbeth was a blast and was greeted with applause. Not only is this the best Macbeth I’ve seen in L.A., it’s also the freest!

If you’re bringing a picnic, be careful with that fried chicken. Bees love it and will swarm until the sun is well down.

photos by Grettel Cortes

Independent Shakespeare Company
Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival (Old Zoo in Griffith Park)
Wed-Sun at 7 | ends on September 4, 2022
FREE (donations gratefully accepted, naturally)
for more info and reservations, visit ISCLA

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