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

Women rock the Night at Cal Shakes season opener

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Lisa Anne Porter (right) plays separated twins Viola and Sebastian in the California Shakesperae Theater season-opening production of Twelfth Night. The female-led cast also includes (from left) Rami Margron as Orsino, Julie Eccles as Olivia, Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Domenique Loazno as Maria. Below: Stacy Ross (left) as Malvolio is under the mistaken impression that his mistress has the hots for him, a ruse concocted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Photos by Kevin Berne

Last year, California Shakespeare Theater offered an off-season touring production of Twelfth Night that featured an all-women cast and made stops in prisons, homeless shelters, senior communities and the like. It was a stripped-down, wonderful production, and apparently its impact was strong enough that outgoing artistic director Jonathan Moscone (he bids adieu in August after he directs The Mystery of Irma Vep) decided to pull the play into the company’s 41st season.

With a different director (Christopher Liam Moore), this is a very different Twelfth Night but with two key returning players and one overriding concept. The actors reprising their roles are Rami Margron as Duke Orsino (she also played scheming lady in waiting Maria last year) and the invaluable Catherine Castellanos making an even deeper impression as boozy wastrel Sir Toby Belch. This is not an all-female production, but it is what you might call female led. Of the eight cast members, seven are women, and – the irony is not subtle here – the only man, Ted Deasy, plays Feste, the fool (and other roles including a sea captain, a priest, a police constable, Antonio and a member of Orsino’s court).

Director Moore’s production is so sure footed and satisfying that the whole idea of a gender-bending cast populating an already gender-bending play quickly becomes less of a gimmick and more about some really good storytelling. It’s great that companies like Cal Shakes are shifting the balance away from male domination of Shakespeare, but it’s even better that the company is giving the stage to some incredibly talented actors to tell a sad, romantic, occasionally very funny tale.

Deasy begins the show by climbing out of a coffin sitting center stage. If that sounds grim – this is a play largely about grief, after all – not to worry. In full court jester garb (costumes by Meg Neville, who mercifully makes this jester bell-less), he whips out his iPhone and samples a playlist to indicate a storm is brewing: “Riders on the Storm,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Stormy Weather” and one other that’s too fun to spoil.” We’ll see iPhones throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, mostly for cuing up music (Air Supply, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin make appearances) but also for photo taking and the inevitable selfie.

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This is the 150th time Cal Shakes has done Twelfth Night (actually the eighth counting last year’s tour), and every time it feels like a slightly different play. Moore is having fun to be sure, but with that coffin never leaving the stage, the specter is ever present. The coffin represents several deaths affecting various characters. The twins Viola and Sebastian (both played by the marvelous Lisa Anne Porter) each think the other perished in a shipwreck. And the Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles, whose transformation from grief to love addled is spectacular) lost her father and brother in a short space of time and is drowning in her loss. But that coffin, being front and center in Nina Ball’s simple set, which resembles either a mausoleum or an elegant resort, also finds itself being used as various pieces of furniture, an ice chest for beer and as a dark, dank prison for the most notoriously wronged Malvolio.

Speaking of Malvolio, the righteous prig who brings out the bully in Sir Toby and his cohorts, Maria (Dominique Lozano) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), a word on the broad comic performances in this production. As Malvolio, Stacy Ross so fully inhabits the character that it’s as easy to hate him (and understand why he gets so viciously pranked) as it is to love him (when the prank goes way too far). Ross is funny, especially taking smiling lessons from the audience or gingerly navigating a set of stairs, but she’s also heartbreaking as the character is humiliated, taunted and bereft of the love he thought he had won.

With Castellanos’ turn as Sir Toby, there is broad hilarity (the costume conjures a Depptonian Capt. Jack Sparrow feel) but also a beating heart under all the liquor and brio and bullying. You get the sense that Toby is performing for Maria, whom he loves, and for Sir Andrew (Hall is quite funny as the blundering idiot), his sycophantic money bags of a sidekick. He’s got a (squalid) reputation to protect, but it really registers when even he admits the Malvolio prank has gone too far.

The happy ending, when the separated twins reunite, is handled deftly, and Porter, who has delineated her male and female (and female pretending to be male) characters beautifully, comes as close as a single actor could to making that scene poignant and a little heartbreaking (Viola gets her brother back from the void, but that hope does not exist for Olivia’s brother).

That this production can be rambunctious (Feste’s songs have a delightful country-western lilt) and funny, romantic and lyrical, sad and shadowy is its ultimate triumph.

California Shakespeare Theater’s Twelfth Night continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Sharp edges in Shotgun’s dance-theater Antigonick

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The cast of Shotgun Players’ Antigonick includes (from left) David Sinaiko, Kevin Clarke, Rami Margron and Parker Murphy. Below: The Anne Carson adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy, now at the Ashby Stage, mixes theater, poetry, criticism and dance. Pictured are Kenny Toll and Margron (center). Photos by Pak Han

It’s a museum piece come to life, a poem that dances, a classic that feels ultra-modern. Shotgun Players’ Antigonick is all that and more, including somewhat baffling and exhausting.

You don’t go into a Mark Jackson show expecting theatrical pablum. Jackson has long been one of the Bay Area’s most interesting theater makers – intelligent, audacious, boundary pushing and always, always interesting. He tends to merge varying styles of theater, often very physical, but always in service of storytelling and emotion. His shows, especially the ones he writes and directs, can’t be described as easy, but there’s always depth, invention and sharp stagecraft.

All of that is true with Antigonick, an adaptation of Sophocles by Anne Carson that name checks Hegel and Beckett within its first moments. Jackson co-directs the piece with Hope Mohr, founder and director of Hope Mohr Dance, and it is very much a piece of dance theater. The 75-minute show hardly ever stops moving, and Carson writes in a silent, all-in-white character representing – what? – time, space, now. His name is Nick (Parker Murphy), as in “nick of time” perhaps, and though he’s visible to us, he seems an invisible guiding force helping shape the movement on the Ashby Stage.

For an unconventional staging of Antigone, this version keeps the basic outline of Sophocles’ story. Antigone (Rami Margron) has lost two brothers in war. One is offered the full honor of burial while the other, having been deemed a traitor by new King Kreon (Kevin Clarke), will remain unburied. Antigone finds his unacceptable and will break the law to see that her brother receives his just burial rites.

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Within that story lies chaos. The play begins with shouting and repetition as Antigone and her sister, Ismene (Monique Jenkinson, who also plays Eurydike later in the play), and by the time the Chorus (David Sinaiko) looking like an immigrant from Middle Earth, it’s clear that this is going to be a wild night in post-modern Ancient Greece.

There’s a distinctly intellectual feel to Antigonick, though in a way that suggests a classics professor was trying to impress a dance professor and vice versa, so they haul out all their flashiest work in service to a translation of Sophocles that feels a little like an iPod on shuffle.

There’s a sense of humor at work here (thanks largely to Sinaiko), and I wish there were more, but much of this short but intense show is consumed by deadly seriousness. This is rigorous, grueling theater (and not just for the actors). There’s flash in the design, which comprises Nina Ball’s great stretch of wood planking, which curves gently from wall to floor. There’s a 樂威壯
horse carcass hovering over the stage like a twisted chandelier, and at a certain point, a great sheet of plastic enters the fray like a howling storm. Stephanie Buchner’s lights add drama and shadow, and Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design – a seemingly nonstop wash of electronic and symphonic sounds mixed with sound effects like ticking clocks – is as active and present as the choreography.

The cast, which also includes the amusing Kenny Toll as various characters including Antigone’s betrothed and various guards and messengers, does some astonishing work here. Jackson and Mohr demand a great deal of them, and they deliver bold, kinetic performances that electrify the fragmented storytelling. Clarke, as a conflicted Kreon, is especially compelling, and his final scene is one that lingers in memory.

As grand art, Antigonick succeeds mightily. It feels bold, fresh, challenging and incisively crafted. But what the show lacked, for me, was a human level. Intellectually I get the conflict between obeying the law versus doing the right thing, being patriotic and remaining true to yourself. But it never fully registered on a personal level. The art dazzled but the heart, my heart at any rate, remained untouched.

Anne Carson’s Antigonick continues an extended run through May 3 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit