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Hartford Stage completes repertory experience with masterful 'Macbeth'

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'Macbeth' at Hartford Stage

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A character starts out with a semblance of nobility but turns into a murderous sociopath by the end of the story. Audiences are gripped by his story and can't turn their eyes away from the shocking acts of violence he commits. He dispatches minions to execute those in his way and acts fearlessly, guiltlessly. It becomes obvious to all who watch that he is motivated by something deep within himself and that he enjoyed the power he accumulated.

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No, I'm not talking about "the one who knocks," Walter White, whose journey on "Breaking Bad" gripped television viewers across the country for the past 5-6 years. The character I'm speaking about is still around and will continue to ply his deadly trade through November 10 at Hartford Stage in William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," now playing in repertory with Marivaux's "La Dispute."

As much as the Marivaux was bright and funny, this production of "Macbeth" is dark and disturbing, though I mean that as a compliment. Both productions have been directed by Darko Tresnjak, the theater's Artistic Director, and perhaps the lightness of the French comedy has enabled Tresnjak to more deeply explore the deep hidden crevices within Shakespeare's Scottish play. As set designer as well for this production, Tresnjak has fashioned a stark, straightforward production that uses light (or lack of it), fog, and even dark, restrictive costumes to record the sudden, quick and actually unexpected descent into the most ruthless and despicable corners of the human spirit while clinging to a notion of historical inevitability.

This journey would not be so powerful if it wasn't for the surprising performance of Matthew Rauch in the title role. When we first meet him early in the opening act, he's a victorious general in King Duncan's army, recognized and honored for his valor in battle. Of course, this being 11th century Scotland, Macbeth is fully capable of being a ruthless, slaughtering general while in the field. Following victory, he doesn't immediately evince ambition, but it is clear that it has been simmering within his character, just waiting for the right moment to be released.

That comes less than five minutes into the play as Macbeth and his fellow general Banquo are accosted by three restless witches who ply the pair with predictions of their future, including Macbeth's ultimate ascent to the throne and Banquo's line, after his death, providing generations of Scottish kings. Rauch's Macbeth responds with anger and disbelief, but his gestures indicate something different: He's resentful of their portents which he sees as teasing and taunting his own innate ambitions, which he has dismissed or put aside until now. When he subsequently learns that the first of their predictions, that he will be named the Thane of Cawdor, has come true, he allows those ambitions to surface.

Returning to his castle where the King has deigned to spend the night, Macbeth shares the Weird Sisters' words with his Lady, who pleased to recognize her husband's growing ambitions, urges him to take this opportunity to dispatch the visiting monarch and cast suspicion on Duncan's two adult sons. Rauch very ably conveys his character's initial reluctance and mixed feelings, but allows himself to be convinced by his wife's vehemence. After this murder, Rauch slowly but progressively evolves into an ever-more confident Macbeth, despite some very realistically portrayed setbacks and bouts of guilt as he is forced to dispatch some once close allies. Once he ascends to the throne, Rauch's Macbeth is no less calm, remaining a constantly restless figure trying to protect himself from perceived and real threats and finding little refuge or reward in his new high position.

Raush is a marvel are conveying Macbeth's ever-present discomfort and insecurity, railing even at those closest to him, including his wife, as his black clad lean frame grows further isolated and frantic, even going so far as to seek additional reassurance from the three witches. Macbeth jumps on these new predictions as offering security for this future, though I thought I saw in Rauch's performance a bit of underlying and unacknowledged distrust of their full reliability. Heading into his character's final desperate confrontations, Rauch completes his compelling portrait of this tormented anti-hero who has forced us to willingly follow his degradation and downfall, unable to turn our heads away. It's a genuinely lean and mean performance that appalls and attracts at the same time, providing the irresistibly horrifying core at the heart of the play.

Kate Forbes made for a compelling Lady Macbeth, whose initial calm and decisiveness in the wake of her husband's initial trepidations about killing the King contrasts remarkably with her soulless, empty wanderer of the second act, tormented by overpowering hallucinations grown out of her treachery. As depicted by Forbes, this Lady has clearly learned how to manipulate her husband's limitations and skills in order to play upon his ambitions, although she seems genuinely terrified of his vicious rejection as he begins to understand the depths of his depravity.

I was particularly impressed by the Banquo of Grant Goodman, who plays the general as an affable, honorable family man who serves as loyal friend to Macbeth until he begins to suspect the course of events that led to his friend's ascent to the throne. His ghost famously returns to terrorize the usurping King, which Goodman handles with an appropriately shocking visage and an amusingly relentless gait. Robert Eli starts out as a dynamic MacDuff, but for some reason seems to lose some steam, even before the black humored scene in which he heartbreakingly learns of the fates of his wife and son. Kate MacCluggage is fine Lady Macduff, providing her with a justifiably cautious suspicion toward nearly visitor to her castle and an angry yet resigned attitude toward her ultimate fate.

Philippe Bowgen grows impressively as Malcolm, the murdered King's eldest son, who flees right after the murder. Bowgen does an excellent job of depicting Malcolm's evolving maturity both as a leader and a military strategist, providing support and understanding to those wronged by Macbeth, expressing appreciation to his new allies, and attaining a confidence that will allow him to go mano a mano with Macbeth in their final battle. Noble Shropshire has a delightful few moments in the only deliberately comic moments in the play as an inconvenienced night porter who relives the years of humiliations on the job in a well-acted and funny monologue.

Tresnjak's set is appropriately bare bones to match the style of the production. A black wall appears at the edge of the thrust stage perpendicular to the ends of the farthest two sections of seats on either side. It contains some movable panels that serve as doors for cast members to enter and exit, as well as be lit on a few occasions to represent the coats of arms of certain allies or to represent the progression of Birnham Wood to Dunsinane Castle, in fulfillment of one of the witches' more wry predictions. With great spooky effectiveness, Tresnjak employs the judicious of stage "fog" which when lit by lighting designer Matthew Richards creates the impression of bodies or armies moving from the shadows toward the audience--one of several stunning visual moments in the show. Richards also provides columns of dim light for each of the witches as on the points of a triangle that allows them to move forward to a cauldron formed by lighting arising from a trap door in the center of the stage.

Tresnjak also stages the appearance of Banquo's ghost in a legitimately unexpected manner, as the dinner celebrating Macbeth's ascension to throne occurs in the hidden area behind the black wall and the ghost trails a frightened Macbeth out from behind the back-lit door and on to the playing area in front of the wall, with the dinner guests trailing behind.

He has also brought Academy-award nominated costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb ("Slumdog Millionaire") to make her Hartford Stage review creating an array of earth-tone designs that capture the rural, still barbarian culture of Scotland of the period, as well as hints of uniforms of war suggested by overhanging cloaks and chain mail. Tunics worn by most of the male characters, when tightly belted, allow the lower sections to resemble rudimentary kilts. The women are garbed in mostly white linen dresses or robes, although Larlab has had fun in assembling some delightfully eccentric outfits that support the Weird Sisters' moniker.

This production of "Macbeth" also allows audience members seeing both plays in repertory to see the cast of "La Dispute" in completely different role. Although Rauch, due to the demands of the title role, only appears in the Scottish play, it is fun to see Goodman's hauty prince in the Marivaux play the honorable Banquo here. Similarly, Kate Forbes' wise, motherly servant Carise in "La Dispute" makes for a steely, then frightening and ultimately tragic Lady Macbeth. The four jaunty young lovers of "La Dispute," who would make a great team as the young lovers in a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," appear here in a variety of roles. Kaliswa Brewster and Mahira Kakkar are two of the murmuring otherwordly witches as well as Gentlewomen to the Queen, while the aforementioned Bowgen is the determined Malcom as well as joining Jeffrey Omura as two of Banquo's murderers. David Manis, the servant Mesrou of 'La Dispute' shows up here as King Duncan. For those unfamiliar with the repertory company process, these two plays provide a very good introduction to the process.

For tickets and schedule information, contact the Hartford Stage box office at 860.525.5601 or visit their website at www.hartfordstage.org. For an opportunity to make a day out of attending both plays, "marathon" sessions with both plays are set for Saturday, October 26 and Saturday, November 2.

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