Of Sunday and Macbeth

My yearnings for theatre were sated last week when, through luck and happenstance, I got to accompany friends to two of the most talked-about shows in New York at the moment: Sunday in the Park with George at the Roundabout Theatre and Macbeth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As events and opportunities to spend time with friends, both were completely pleasurable. As aesthetic artifacts, both were disappointing.

The better of the shows in terms of script is the lesser of the shows in terms of production: Macbeth. The central problems are that the play is a hodgepodge of ideas and techniques and that Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth gives a one-note performance in the key of overwrought. (Patrick Stewart's performance is, like the whole show, occasionally extraordinary and generally competent, but lacking coherence.) The director, Rupert Goold, has chosen to put the play in quasi-Stalinist dress and on a single set: a white-tiled hospital ward-asylum-torture chamber, augmented with projected imagery when necessary. It's an effective choice, giving the play a sense of unity and menace, particularly in conjunction with the choice to make the witches into three nurses. The opening scene with the bloody soldier is hilarious at first, because the actor playing the soldier performs like an epileptic animatron, but the segue into the next scene, when the witches wonder when they'll meet again, is marvelously creepy.

Indeed, many of my favorite moments in the play were the scene transitions. Talking with other people who have seen the show, many of whom liked it far more than I, the banquet scene gets mentioned as a high point, and for me it was so, but not as much for the scene itself as for the movement from the scene of Banquo's murder (on a train, staged clumsily) to the banquet -- there is a puzzling shift to the entire cast singing something as if they've briefly been beamed in from Sweeney Todd, but just because it's puzzling doesn't mean it's not effective (I'm a sucker for sudden choral impulses), and then the chorus becomes the banquet. It's a lovely bit of choreography. Banquo gets to charge in, face and chest drenched in gore, and jump on the table, and then comes the intermission (or "interval" as the announcement at BAM said -- apparently they even imported the house manager from England). The scene is repeated when the second half of the play begins, this time sans Banquo and gore, so we get to see that Macbeth is -- shock of shocks -- delusional! It's one of the dubious choices that gives this production of Shakespeare's shortest play a running time closer to that of your average production of Hamlet.

Ultimately, my favorite performances were those of actors in smaller roles, particularly Christopher Patrick Nolan as the porter, portrayed with such diabolical menace that the character seems to have little to do with Shakespeare's original, but is nonetheless captivating to behold -- many of the other actors strain for similarly overblown effects, but produce characters that are less compelling, less nuanced, more like a reanimated bag of tics and tricks than a person.

Nonetheless, this is absolutely the best production of Macbeth I've ever seen. That is faint praise, though, because for some reason, though Macbeth is the Shakespeare play I have seen most often (yes, even more than A Midsummer Night's Dream, but that's probably because I've vowed never to see that one ever again lest it reach levels of fatal toxicity in my system), I have nonetheless had the bad luck to see nothing but truly atrocious productions of it, including an utterly lifeless version at the 1995 Stratford Festival in Ontario.

(I should note that Rick Bowes said the only reason I didn't like Kate Fleetwood's performance was that I couldn't adjust to the nontraditional casting of a woman in the role.)

Sunday in the Park is an altogether better production, one with strong and thoughtful performances throughout, and a coherent style and vision. My primary complaint was with the orchestra -- well, band, really. The production began at a tiny British theatre (yes, this is another import, a fact Michael Feingold has complained about) and despite moving to very modern and expansive digs here in the U.S., the band has not been expanded, and the lack is painful to anyone who knows the original soundtrack -- excruciatingly painful at a couple of key moments, in fact. Plenty of musicals can survive just with a piano -- I once saw a perfectly good Sweeney Todd performed that way -- but the orchestrations of Sunday in the Park provide a level of meaning to the show that is simply not available without at least a few more instruments (preferably some brass) than the new production has. The final moments of Act I, with the song "Sunday", are breathtaking with an orchestra, and while they were still affecting at the Roundabout -- it's one of the best moments in all of Stephen Sondheim's work -- the emotional power was greatly reduced from what it could be.

Sunday in the Park provides a few gnarly problems to any production. First, there's the technical challenge: how do you assemble one of the most famous post-Impressionist paintings during the course of the first act, for instance? This production solves the technical challenges cleverly -- with projected animations. Even in these days of massive Broadway spectacles, the animations in Sunday in the Park are impressive because they make the stage itself into a blank piece of canvas, allowing quick and occasionally stunning transformations. Sometimes the animations are distracting, but more often they are magical, as props and set pieces that previously seemed solid evaporate into thin air.

The other problem with Sunday in the Park is the second act. Critics have, ever since the original production of 1983/84, complained about the second act, and its shallow satire of the 1980s art world has not aged well. This is, though, primarily a problem with one song, albeit a long one: "Putting It Together" (rewritten to somewhat better effect for the revue of that title, where it became about putting a show together) -- the rest of the act is, though a bit ethereal and certainly less impressive than the first act, not particularly painful. The new production does its best with "Putting It Together", but Daniel Evans makes George so unsympathetic, so much the stereotype of the bristling and bitter and whiny artist, that the emotional possibilities of the second act's conclusion are lost, and what remains feels forced and sour.

It is, though, a generally enjoyable production, though seldom transcendent in the way the material can be.

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