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Shame the stars: (l-r) Damon Daunno and Kelli Barrett in The Last Goobye.

New Baptized

By Ralph Hammann

The Last Goodbye

Conceived, adapted and directed by Michael Kimmel, music and lyrics by Jeff Buckley

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through Aug. 20

After listening to Jeff Buckley’s music on his iPod, Michael Kimmel had the idea to marry the late composer’s songs to Shakespeare’s most famous love story. The result is a new musical version of Romeo and Juliet that trims Shakespeare’s scenes (they needed some cutting, anyway) and replaces the verbiage with Buckley’s intense rock score, sung and played with passion by a 14-member cast and six-member band. Shakespeare purists may condemn and lovers of West Side Story may compare, but there is no denying the raw, exciting power of the new creation.

As is often the case with rock scores, some of the lyrics are difficult to understand, so I am not sure just how seamlessly they knit with Shakespeare, but I am certain of one thing: The music captures and enhances the emotional moments, transitions and overall arc of the play. The overwrought emotions of those embroiled in hateful feuding and impassioned first love, which can seem artificial in Shakespeare, are here lent a contemporary verisimilitude by the rock score. Suddenly, what can seem rarefied attains new currency, and the ubiquitous tale is revivified. Thus do Kimmel and, unknowingly, Buckley do the same service to Shakespeare that he did to the archaic works he often raided for his plots and characters.

This is all strengthened by music director Kris Kukul’s orchestrations and arrangements and intensified by Sonya Tayeh’s pulsating and febrile choreography, which could be a show in itself. Even Michael Brown’s urban-angst set with its ripped and plastered changes and (except for clinical fluorescent white lights near the end) Ben Stanton’s lighting feel like the visual equivalents of rock music.

As a group, the cast frequently soars, but as individuals it falls largely to the women to carry this production. While often unclear in his lyrics, Damon Daunno hits his notes well and has an engaging sense of humor, but his Romeo is too much a lightweight whom one can’t imagine in a street fight, let alone one that ends in murder. Neither can one imagine Tom Hennes’ Paris as the macho Lord Capulet’s idea of a suitable mate for Juliet (Hennes does sing with an assured and sweet falsetto, though). In the important role of Tybalt, Ashley Robinson is all overheated sputter and unintelligibility. Finally, Matt Jenkins lends little authority and even less credibility as a Prince who pops in and out of a doorway like Pee Wee Herman.

Assets are Michael Park’s bluff Lord Capulet, whose blood visibly boils, and Jesse Lenat’s humorous Friar who seems a cross between George Carlin and Sylvester the Cat. Best of the men is Nick Blaemire’s Benvolio. He seems a true friend to Romeo and Mercutio, registers true pain at his double loses and, in the show’s most transcendent moment, offers a touching rendition of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah,” of which Buckley forged a version.

Chloe Webb brings compassion and forthrightness to the Nurse, who proves a more central character in this version; her rendition of “Nightmares by Sea” is riveting. As Rosaline, Celina Carvajal has an earthy delivery and a steamy seductiveness sufficient to make any young Romeo bemoan her departure.

The beautiful Merle Dandridge is a stunning physical and emotional presence as Lady Capulet and handles Shakespeare and Buckley with equal aplomb and a bell-like voice. One of this version’s biggest changes to the original is to recast Mercutio as a woman and, thanks to Jo Lampert’s take-no-prisoners performance, it is also one of the greatest coups. Dominating the first act with a magnificent ferocity unmatched by any of the men, Lampert is impossible to forget. Totally possessed by the music, Lampert lacerates the air with Buckley’s words and burns the stage with Tayeh’s torrid choreography, for which she also was the dance captain. Her “Eternal Life” closes the first act on such a high, that one fears nothing in the second act will match it.

But it is in the second act that lovely Kelli Barrett’s Juliet comes fully into her own. Not that she isn’t excellent in act one, where she brings a beguiling freshness and honesty to the balcony scene and fully conveys the intoxication of love and sex. But in the second act she fairly blazes with sheet-scorching emotion. In particular, her epiphanic “What Will You Say” offers a terrifically realized transformation as Barrett rips virginal white nightclothes from her body to stand defiantly in black underwear, signaling a powerful assertion of her sexuality and declaration of her rebellion. Finally, we have a seethingly alive Juliet whose eventual suicide stings.

The double suicide is handled brilliantly by Kimmel, who overlaps two different times so that we experience the lovers’ deaths simultaneously in a compellingly transcendental duet.

The WTF publicity promised an incendiary show; “The Last Goodbye” delivers that and more as Buckley’s impassioned and haunting music takes a new and most deserved bow on the Nikos stage.

 

Strange Infirmity

Macbeth

By William Shakespeare, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 14

Lady Macduff (Brandy Caldwell) in her long slate gray head covering and gown is menaced by six bare-chested men wearing what seem to be hakama (traditional Japanese long black skirts) with leather belts and loops to hold their daggers when not held menacingly in their hands. One bare-chested man quickly kills her son—“He has killed me mother, run away,” the dying son says, but she does not run away. The man downstage center then suddenly strips off his hakama, revealing a nude-colored g-string, pivots and stabs Lady Macduff in a sudden blackout, her scream lasting as long as the darkness.

Downstage right, a clear acrylic basin rests on a black metal pedestal. The water sloshes in it, reflecting and refracting the lights. Wearing skin-tight white mesh and lycra, Witch 1 (Elizabeth Terry), Witch 2 (Tommy Schrider), and Witch 3 (Equiano Mosieri) cackle around the basin at the play’s beginning, spin a charm as Macbeth enters in the play’s third scene, and waterboard Macbeth after turning the water red by casting entrails and blasphemies into the basin in the famous Act 4 prophecy.

Four two-story, faux-stone walls narrow the stage to half its width upstage and downstage left and right. A faux-stone ramp runs from upstage left to midstage right; another to downstage left. A horizontal strip of stage is left open downstage, save for where the basin rightly stands. The open strip is a place for strong verbs like or “stand and declaim.” Upstage, dark gray fabric is stiffened into the crags of a cavern, where red lights are cast for bloody scenes or talk of bloody things.

Macbeth (C.J. Wilson) and Lady Macbeth (Keira Naughton) frequently stand on the ramps, look over the heads of the audience and speak in resonant voices with crisply enunciated consonants. It is as if they speak a language each can hear but no one need comprehend. They kiss twice.

Macbeth has the archetypal look of a hero, his nicely cut full beard and strong curly hair coupled with a rich voice. Here, Macbeth chokes Lady Macbeth, mostly because his resonant voice calls on “seeling Night” to “scarf up the tender eye of pitiful Day.” As Lady Macbeth, she wears a rust-colored tunic and a silver necklace, her long blond hair flowing free; as queen, a blood-red off-the-shoulder gown with a velvet center panel and black tie. She wears black when she sleepwalks in Act 5. It is a good look for her, and she sounds most human then.

During Banquo’s (Walter Hudson) haunted banquet scene, the thanes sit on black zabutons (floor cushions). The audience is moved to laugh appreciatively, especially after “I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing . . .”

In the play’s second scene, King Duncan (Ralph Petillo) stands in the center of the middle ramp, his right arm akimbo on his hip. Ross (Tommy Shrider again) and Angus (Equiano Mosieri again) stand on the fringes and share a snarky smirk. The three use the gesture and expressions liberally over the next two hours.

Witch 1 walks on after the bloody-handed Macbeth walks off during the knocking following Duncan’s murder. Witch 1 smiles, puts on a cap, and answers the door as the Porter, however, the Porter’s soliloquy (“Knock, knock, knock; who’s there?”) is cut. The Porter does not talk to the audience during this performance. No one else does, either. The fourth wall is very strongly built here, and not from faux rock and fabric. It is too strong to breach, even if someone wanted to.

The “Subscriber Enrichment Packet” mentions director Eric Hill’s studies with famed Japanese theater director Tadashi Suzuki, whose theatrical aesthetic is strongly rooted. If there were no audience ever, Birnam Wood would still make a sound falling, just no one would react to it. In some aesthetics, audiences are to be feared, or ignored, so long as they subscribe and applaud. They need not be communicated with, included in the experience of a performance, or encouraged to think or feel. Audiences need to keep to their aesthetically essential places.

In Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers, famed Harvard professor Marjorie Garber wrote about the various curses ascribed to Macbeth. Orson Welles’ infamous 1936 “Voodoo Macbeth” is the source of a supposed curse by that production’s corps of “voodoo drummers” on a critic who cast an unfavorable opinion on the production and soon died. A tale told by an idiot, critics hope.

During intermission at BTF, critics seated near each other asked rhetorically, “Have you ever seen a good production of Macbeth?” and attempted to answer affirmatively, running past local and regional productions to include national shows starring Maggie Smith, Alec Baldwin, Patrick Stewart, Raul Julia over the last 30 years. The Macbeth curse lives, just not in ways Garber or Welles’ drummers knew.

—James Yeara

 


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