Berkeley Rep’s Macbeth: Double, double dull, in trouble

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Frances McDormand is Lady Macbeth) and Conleth Hill is Macbeth in Daniel Sullivan’s production of “the Scottish Play” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: McDormand’s Lady M attempts a challenging feat: hand cleansing while sleepwalking. Photos courtesy of

Say this for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Macbeth now on stage at the Roda Theatre: it stars an Oscar winner, a Tony Winner and an Emmy winner. And she’s doing some interesting things with Lady Macbeth. People are coming to this production to see Frances McDormand try her hand at one of the juiciest roles in the Shakespearean canon, and it’s impossible for McDormand’s genius not to shine through despite the uninvolving production that surrounds her.

There’s a lot of blood in Macbeth, with ritual torture, equal-opportunity murder (men, women, children) and even a beheading, but director Daniel Sullivan delivers a bloodless take on this challenging play. There’s a lot of strutting and fretting in 2 1/2 hours on the stage signifying, sorry to say, mostly nothing.

Aside from the distracting and over-used projections (clearly, projections have become to the live theater what CGI is to film – the easy, go-to solution for sets and effects), this is a fusty, musty kind of Shakespeare where people where pelts, swing swords and intone greatly with only rare connections to what they’re actually saying. The exception is James Carpenter, who plays King Duncan, the drunken porter and Lady Macbeth’s doctor – he makes complete sense of every sentence.

That can make for some dull going, and it stems from, among other things, some serious miscasting and a startling unevenness among the cast.

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Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill, who has a wealth of stage experience in the UK and on Broadway, doesn’t make much of an impression as Macbeth. He somehow never seems quite believable in the world the production is trying to create and never shows much of a connection with McDormand’s Lady Macbeth. There’s one powerful moment between the two when they reference the fact that they haven’t ever had children, and McDormand opens up her character to expose a deep source of pain and torment. Hill never really has a moment like that, so his vaulting ambition just comes across as by the numbers ego wrangling.

In addition to that one moment, McDormand, who suffers without a complex, powerful leading man to equal her own complexity, has another stunning moment at the end of the famous sleepwalking scene when, with great vulnerability, she reveals that she might not be sleepwalking after all.

I’ve always been disappointed that Shakespeare never let us see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth together late in the play, each dealing with guilt and regret in different ways, and that absent scene is sorely felt here because it seems McDormand is really on to something here.

Among the scenes with the most crackle is one between Lady Macduff (Mia Tagano) and her son (the excellent Leon Jones) as she bitterly discusses her husband as a traitor and a liar and any scene involving the three witches played by McDormand (with a billygoat beard), Tagano and Rami Margron). We first see the witches torturing a man tied to a tree, and though they’re competing with way too much stage smoke, they are direct and creepy. When we see them again at the height of Macbeth’s mania, they are the perfect embodiment of that dangerous and destructive need for power (and fame and wealth and anything else that effectively separates us from our humanity). Sometimes the “toil and trouble” spell casting can be funny rather than unsettling, but here the witches conjure appropriate anxiety.

It would seem, in this contentious and bullying political climate, that Macbeth would be the right play at the right time. Perhaps it is, but you wouldn’t really know it from this production.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth continues through April 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theater, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$125 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Shaker it up, baby now!

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The ensemble of the Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, featuring Frances McDormand (center), performs some ecstatic dancing toward the end of the hour-long show. Below: The show’s core women singers (from left) Elizabeth Lecompte, Suzzy Roche, McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom. Photos by Paula Cort

If, as they say, ’tis the gift to be simple, then Early Shaker Spirituals is truly gifted.

Just what is this show exactly? Is it an hourlong piece of documentary theater about songs sung (and danced) by the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quakers? Is it a simply staged concert in which four women sing along with a record album? Is it some avant garde comment on simplicity and spirituality by New York’s famed Wooster Group? Yes, yes and yes.

If you happen to be going to this sold-out touring production now at Z Space, first of all, lucky you. It is, first and foremost, a highly enjoyable experience that, in its way, also finds a way to challenge its audience. Here’s what you’re in for: four women dressed in simple Shaker garb (long print dresses, sensible shoes) are gathered. Because The Wooster Group has subtitled this “a record album interpretation,” it should come as no surprise that the women – via high-tech earpieces – are listening to the album “Early Shaker Spirituals” being played on a record player over at the sound booth. They sing along to side one of the 1976 album (the recordings were made in the ’60s and ’70s), and a narrator (Jamie Poskin, reads the album’s liner notes and talks briefly about the origins of the songs. Occasionally the women – Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche – shift position in their cluster, but mostly they just sing. And it’s beautiful.

These are older women with interesting voices. Other than Roche (one third of the Roches), who could sing all night and hold the audience in her thrall, none of the voices is likely to win a televised singing contest, and that makes their singing all the more wonderful.


The women sing 17 songs and recite two of the album’s spoken-word tracks describing aspects of the song and song culture among the Shakers. Then, the women are joined by younger men in contemporary garb – Max Bernstein, Matthew Brown, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Bobby McElver and Andrew Schneider – to add dancing to their singing. It’s a patterned, ecstatic kind of circle dancing – lots of spinning and stomping – and it elevates the show from a sort of NPR special report come to life into a modest spectacle suffused with joy.

There’s no question that this is an odd show. Because these are performers and not actual Shakers (by 2012 there were only three Shakers left), we’re given to interpret their work rather than simply appreciate it. This is Shaker simplicity examined and exalted by artists for the enjoyment, education and, perhaps, puzzlement of others. It’s an interesting thing to think about while you’re watching the show: in life, these songs are ingrained in everyday spirituality, touchstones for believers to connect to other believers and that which they believe is bigger than them all. On a stage, it’s also musical theater, complete with choreography, sound, set and lighting design and an Academy Award-winning familiar face in a bonnet. It’s unreal and real at the same time, a delicious theatrical duality.

The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation continues through Sunday, Feb. 8 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50 (and all shows are sold out). Call 866-811-4111 or visit