Hobey Echlin/Detroit Metro Times/Nov 11, 1991
MACBETH, for those out of practice with the verse of the Bard, is the story of a diabolical Scottish nobleman and his equally scheming wife who murder their way to the throne of Scotland and pay the consequences. They are coaxed on via the visitations of a coven of witches, who reveal Macbeth’s ascendancy to the couple in a series of ominous prophecies. Perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest play, Macbeth is also about the death of language, or rather its reinvention into different meanings, just as the witches’ amorphous oracles offer contradictory interpretations as the plot evolves. Throughout the work, he recasts language into a metaphysical vision of nuance and emotion where “nothing is but is not,” and reality and definition contort with each new circumstance.
Foul is fair where meanings blur, as Macbeth notes in the first scene: This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good.” This work is about something beyond “good” and “evil”; these relative concepts are obsolete for the business of the play. The operating term instead “real” psychologically and physically, but most importantly, personally. In Macbeth’s metaphysical saturation, the very elements-earth, air, fire, water-are extensions of raw lust, greed, guilt, and anguish. The entire earth is “feverish” when Macbeth commits his first crime; Lady Macbeth doesn’t hear the shrieks of her husband’s victims, but rather the “owls scream and the crickets cry.” The plot becomes the platform from which the base human desire manifests itself in vivid total form; a private language brought to bear, down to the last ominous raven’s caw and witch’s writhe.
And it is just this unrefined power that has inspired renewed interest in Shakespeare from thespians and scholars alike. In the last 15 years, his work has enjoyed a revival, most notably a 1989 Stratford production of Macbeth that featured S&M bikers in leather for its cast, as the subconscious urges of Shakespeare’s text became, literally, painfully manifest. Perhaps it is in his endearing view of “baseness,” human frailty and culpability, that Shakespeare becomes the most compelling. This is beautifully revealed in his play, The Tempest, where Prospero admits, “These things of darkness, I acknowledge mine,” a living metaphor for an acceptance,even a celebration of human nature’s fallen side.
“Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the top full of direst cruelty”
French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud was also concerned with this more exposed part of human nature. An early Surrealist, he promptly left the mind-blowing clan when they bought into the ideology of the Communist Party and the idea of a formal political agenda. For Artaud, politics was a personal matter: the imagination was the true forum for liberation. Artaud – like Shakespeare in Macbeth– was interested in death of language. He worked toward the breakdown of signifiers in societally- taught patterns of thought and speech, to be replaced by a new hyperreal vocabulary of experience and expression. This was a place where humanity could reach ” a supreme equilibrium…that cannot be achieved without destruction” presumably of language. In the Theater and Its Double, Artaud spoke of liberating the stage and the audience from cheap sentimental passivity and its way of exacting a specific, loudest-common-denominator emotional response (think prime-time television, Hollywood, MTV, Bill Bonds). He proposed this via an “assault to the senses” in a “Theater of Cruelty.”
Though Artaud’s ideas are revolutionary, they are equally confusing. Writing in highly poetic terms, he speaks of actors as “hieroglyphs,” “signaling through the flames,” and other curious details that present a challenge to modern directors drawn to his reinvention of the theater’s language. Dr. George Popovich, director of Henry Ford Community College’s current production, Macbeth 1991, draws this analogy : “He was a prophet ; so was Jesus, and there’s over 300 sects of Christianity. Nobody knows what Artaud said. It’s like reading these metaphysical parts along with French symbolist poetry through a kaleidoscope.”
“The interpretations are usually either this super hi-tech stuff or people running around in their underwear,” he explains amusedly. Artaud himself had the luxury of distance between his language and actually having to produce a play based on his tenets. He admitted that all attempts at it were failures, conceding that it might have looked better on paper. But this is precisely the point where Popovich’s production picks up the torch and carries it through the night.
“O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!”
Beginning last May, Popovich and his cast began rehearsals, which included an acting seminar with Detroit’s hands-on theatrical re-constructionists, Theater Grottesco. Grottesco schooled the cast in techniques of projection and a physical style of acting important to bringing Shakespeare’s verse-intensive Macbeth into Artaud’s hieroglyphs and primal renderings. Extensive modifications were also made to HFCC’s Adray Auditorium, including quartering the seating area with scaffolding and suspending ropes for the witches to hang and climb on above the audience. Rehearsals have been spent meeting the challenge of attempting to mesh Shakespeare’s delicate language to the sound and fury of Artaud’s, with intricate stage cues and timing-is-everything technological emphasis.
The result is both spectacular and unsettling. Witches undulate and hiss sliding along the scaffolds; they grind on the ropes, gasping a primal erotic subtext to the play’s “will to power” premise. It is sensual and equally unnerving; as well as being excessive and true to Artaud’s vision of overwhelmingly raw emotion. Macbeth’s “dagger of the mind” becomes a huge and flickering phallic apparition of his reddened conscience. Acts of violence are jarring explosions of light and sound; soliloquies are contorted, repeated as ominous tone-poem narrations with witches’ manipulations and violations of character’s effigies in primal, metaphysical tableaux. Language is made transparent, transformed into the more base drone of subjective truth.
But as Macbeth 1991 relies on shock value for its experiments in horror, Popovich is effective when his touch is more subtle. A mother and child’s murder are signaled by witches stretching and twisting red cloths as the tinny plinking of a music box chimes disturbingly at a distorting volume- the simple horror of violence is expanded into active, penetrating metaphors drawn from endearing memory. As Popovich explains “You look at Freddy Kruger, and it’s just spectacle, while a guy like Jonathan Demme, with Jacob’s Ladder or Silence of the Lambs, goes beyond horror into terror. In the scene, when the music box plays and the witches are twisting the material, you don’t have any simple point of focus. It messes with your head a lot more than seeing a throat cut.”
“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!” – Macduff
Popovich frees minds by warping them.
Though Macbeth 1991 may share in the primal excess and spectacle of elaborate special effects, armor and sound acrobatics of the most cruel of theaters, rock and roll- with Slayer, Skinny Puppy, and Public Enemy equally guilty practitioners of the same kinds (perhaps well-intentioned) eye/ear candy special effects- the play may also suffer in an age already weary, even numb, to some of its extreme vernacular. Popovich is well-aware of the challenge in any such an undertaking, and answers, “Artaud’s idea was to short circuit people’s normal sensory responses by sensory overload. But I’m not sure when you do that you don’t burn the audience out.”
But if Macbeth 1991 is flawed, it is nonetheless powerful. In his various interpretations of Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” Popovich has created a vibrant and resonant Macbeth, technically challenging and emotionally solicitous, even at its most frustrating. He has grafted the opaque and the protean genius of Artaud onto the dark and scattered Shakespeare by taking the necessary chances though he’s not completely sure they work: “Anytime you attempt Artaud, it’s an experiment. Hell, I’ve been studying the guy for 15 years and I still don’t know what he means.” In this ambitious, if honest, spirit, confusion hath indeed made his masterpiece: glowing daggers, twisting witches, Heavy Metal Theater and all.
1991 Page Award Winners
Outstanding Achievement By A Technical Director: Dr. George Popovich
Outstanding Achievement in Lighting: Dr. George Popovich, Mike Cavallero
Outstanding Achievement in Special Effects: Dr. George Popovich
Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival
Irene Ryan Nominations
- Macbeth: Thomas Hoagland
- Duncan: Mike Garcia
- Malcolm: Travis Reiff
- Donalbain: Keith Milewski
- Banquo: Mark Powell
- Shadow Macbeth: Mark Powell
- Macduff: Steven Nicolich
- Lennow: Mike Petee
- Ross: Victor Bidini
- Angus: Keith Lenart
- Fleance: Kevin Walsh
- Young Siward: Michael Petee
- Seyton: Keith Lenart
- Scottish Doctor: Mike Garcia
- Sergeant: Steve Schoben
- Porter: Vic Bidini
- Old Man: Mike Garcia
- Lady Macbeth: Marissa Pleschakov
- Shadow Lady Macbeth: Marissa Pleschakov
- Hecate: Marissa Pleschakov
- Lady MacDuff: Jen Shea
- Lady MacDuff’s Daughter: Rosemary Montgomery
- Witches: Tracy Spada, Amy Armstrong, Jen Shea, Lori Przyblo, Jen Sourbeck, Rosean Gruley