Review: Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Macbeth’

Afghanistan-set 'Macbeth' darkly dazzles

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Photo by Casey A. Cass/CU-Boulder
Liza de Weerd and Nigel Gore

Setting one of Shakespeare’s plays in a relatively modern time and place is more the rule than the exception these days. Of the dozens of performances of the Bard’s works I’ve seen, only a small handful has used a “traditional” setting. Instead, directors tend to take Othello and move it to America’s antebellum South or turn Romeo into a Greaser and Juliet into a Soc a la The Outsiders.

While this bent toward modernizing Shakespeare invariably results in novel productions, it often feels more a gimmick than an inspiration. From time to time, however, a director uses this technique so successfully that a well-worn classic, a known commodity, becomes vibrantly alive once again. Such is the case with Director Jane Page’s Macbeth at this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF).

With American troops still on the ground in Afghanistan today and with the relationship between the U.S. and Russia becoming more eerily Cold War-ish every week, Page’s choice to set Macbeth in the 1980s Soviet occupation of the perennially war-torn Iranian neighbor is nothing short of brilliant. This Macbeth may be the most thought-provoking and emotionally arresting production of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen.  

As Macbeth (Nigel Gore) and Banquo (Sam Gregory) journey home from battle, they encounter three witches (Jamie Ann Romero, Nicole Bruce and Geoffrey Kent — not in drag). The witches prophesy that Macbeth will be elevated to next-in-line for the throne and that Banquo’s sons shall one day be king. As soon as the two men reach the kingdom, King Duncan (Lawrence Hecht), grants Macbeth the prophesied title.

Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth (Liza de Weerd — who, with a name like that, perhaps should have played one of the witches), goads her husband to seize the moment, murder Duncan and ascend to the throne. Though conflicted at first, Macbeth ultimately screws his courage to the sticking place and does the dastardly deed. Mindful of the witches’ words, Macbeth realizes that killing the king is only a half-measure, and sends assassins to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance (James Miller).

Though Banquo dies, Fleance escapes, and this — along with another visit by Macbeth to the witches — sets up a twist ending that likely had Elizabethan audiences walking out of the Globe Theatre, mouths agape, thinking of Shakespeare as his generation’s Shyamalan (circa The Sixth Sense — everything after that film and Unbreakable has been a sad study in diminishing returns). If you’ve never read nor seen Macbeth, pay close attention to this second set of supernatural pronouncements, then watch wide-eyed as they come to pass in most unusual ways.

The CSF has been working hard to recapture the credibility and respectability it has enjoyed in decades past. Casting actors like Nigel Gore, who plays pivotal roles in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, aids those efforts immeasurably. Gore exceeds all expectations, whether delivering a famous soliloquy or a non-traditionally humorous one-sentence aside. Along with Gore, Romero, Bruce and Kent give us chillingly venomous Middle Eastern witches that feel more organically integrated into the time and place than in any other production of Macbeth I have experienced.

Scenic Designer Lisa Orzolek builds on the foundational set she created for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to give Macbeth a simple yet evocative look. The costumes by Hugh Hanson and the props — particularly the wide array of firearms — by Amy Chini impart to the play an air of authenticity not often seen.

Page has crafted a Macbeth that is so topical, so gripping, that some audience members may actually feel uncomfortable during certain particularly challenging scenes. The reactions from the opening night crowd were some of the most visceral I’ve witnessed at the CSF. Macbeth is a play about the lust for power and its ramifications, and this version of it drills that point home mercilessly. It should be required viewing, a cautionary tale, if you will, for politicians at all levels and in all areas.

Macbeth plays through Aug. 10 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the CU campus. Tickets are $10-$59. Call 303-492-8008 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org for more information.

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