Witches & warriors, bathed in light


Corporate reconception of The Scottish Play leaves us cold


….by the clock, ‘tis day,

And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp:

Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,

That darkness does the face of earth entomb,

When living light should kiss it?

The above is from Act 2, Scene 4 in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” widely considered the author’s “darkest” play, and as a consequence, usually produced employing a full arsenal of atmospheric effects: chiaroscuro lighting, fog machines, and scary set pieces designed to cast spooky shadows. But not this time.

“The irony is that the play was originally produced in broad daylight,” says director and co-producer John Castro. “In its original production at the Globe Theatre, it was essentially done outdoors in the open air. The actors were forced to creatively deal with creating the illusion of darkness using Shakespeare’s language. They even carried lit torches around, pretending it was night.”

Of course, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center is not the Globe. A former schoolhouse deep in the heart of the Lower East Side, it not only possesses a roof, but is so rife with moody, dark atmospherics that for several years it has been the annual home of a Halloween haunted house. Castro dealt with this reality by flooding the space with artificial light, primarily a row of overhanging florescents which perpetually shine, bleaching and blanching the actors below as if they all had hangovers. The effect, bouncing off the all-white linoleum floor, is meant to evoke the terrors of modern, corporatized life.

“Artifical light takes us away from natural human rhythms.” says Castro. “In modern culture, we’re always going, we’re always lit. I thought a lot about this in terms of Macbeth’s sleeplessness. As the play goes on, the sleeplessness makes him less humane. The light becomes sinister, and the dark becomes a place of rest and solace. In preparation for the production, I made the entire cast watch the film “Insomnia.”

As in “Insomnia,” the brightness in Castro’s Macbeth is relentless. There are only a couple of light cues in the entire show. The actors make their exits and entrances in full view of the audience, and even await their cues in a marked off section visible to all throughout the entire production. The effect is indeed unsettling.  

The current production is far from Castro’s first time at the helm of a Shakespeare production. In the past, he has also directed “A Winter’s Tale,” “Measure for Measure,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “As You Like It” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“I love doing Shakespeare because he is infinitely explorable.” Castro explains. “In any given play, his vision is so unified and interwoven throughout, that striving to realize the perfect form in production is immensely gratifying.” He co-founded Hipgnosis in 2005 with collaborators Demetri Bonaros and Margot Newkirk. The company’s name is cheerfully borrowed from a British design firm that created album covers for the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the 1960s and 70s.

As you’ve probably gleaned from the foregoing, Hipgnosis is a company that prides itself on its grey matter. The production itself reflects this emphasis, seeming less driven by emotions than ideas. “Macbeth” has always been a play in which the actors shed more blood than tears, but the present production takes it still farther, substituting the pumped-up half-animal Scottish warriors with cool, dry technocrats in synthetic sci-fi costumes. It would only be a small leap to replace the ubiquitous swords carried by every male character with some sort of laser weapon, with which the characters could eliminate each other, sans blood in addition to the lack of darkness. Julian Mozzell as the title character is an ectomorph in type — more Cassius-like than Thane of Cawdor. He seems likes the sort of nobleman who would be more comfortable hatching schemes than hacking limbs, which fits in with Castro’s corporate reconception of the play. Richard Ugino as Banquo is a Paul Giamatti-like presence, a sort of a cross between a teddy bear and an accountant. Even the scene where Macduff (Nick Brooks) learns of the murder of his family (traditionally the play’s biggest tear-jerking moment) leaves cast and audience equally dry-eyed.

While our sorrow is not engaged, neither is a far more primitive emotion, the one most commonly associated with the spookiest of all Shakespeare plays: fear. Here, even the witches seem to be some sort of arthritic chemists in hazmat suits, rather than creatures out of a nightmare. Without those traditional scenic elements: the haunted castle scenery, the cobwebs, the shadows, the flaming torches, the night forest in silhouette, then we indeed must rely on the power of Shakespeare’s words. But here, for the most part, the ensemble is not up to the task — the horrors indicated by the poetry remain unconjured.  The words are spoken, but the ideas are not conveyed. Castro has scraped the icing off the cake so we could enjoy it for it’s own sake…but he didn’t get the cake right either. In the end, we wind up with a production that may be interesting, but leaves one a bit cold. Not in the way we would like, i.e. chilled to the bone. But rather, unmoved and disengaged. I imagine that Shakespeare would agree that flooding the playing space in light is rather beside the point if that is the result.