Avon Crawling

Phoenix is lousy with Shakespeare this week. At Herberger Theater Center, Arizona Theatre Company's The Two Gentlemen of Verona trods the boards. Macbeth is snorting and pawing the ground at Arizona State University's Paul V. Galvin Playhouse. And over at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, both Hamlet and Macbeth--by way of Tom Stoppard--are taking it in the shorts.

Each of these three productions is a showcase for the skills of its director. And excepting ATC's Verona, with its mammoth budget and Equity players, these shrewd adaptations are impaired only by some uneven acting. Director David Barker has hauled the Thane of Cawdor into the future--both ours and his. Set in a dark, grungy, postapocalyptic world, ASU's Macbeth is thick with leather-clad meanies and gory battles, and is underscored by blaring punk-rock music. Everything is shrouded in a vague, dirty fog. Sort of Mad Max meets Old Will.

Barker has hacked away great chunks of Shakespeare's original text to make room for some memorable visuals. He suspends the Weird Sisters from tethers, hangs Macbeth by his heels, and draws his henchmen as cigar-smoking Castro clones. And he's rewritten history by casting a woman as Malcolm, the son of King Duncan. In the end, Macbeth is slain in the name of the new queen of Scotland.

In the hands of a less talented director, these sorts of liberties might have resulted in a pointless derivation, a McMacbeth for the masses. But Barker's informed take on the old tale enhances rather than buries the original. In fact, the only real flaw in this production is that the men are out-acted by the women. Lana Buss is a stirring Lady Macbeth, and Suzanne Sanders, in her single scene as Lady Macduff, is a knockout. Robin M. Hannenberg's Malcolm is suitably swaggering, so that I was eventually able to forget that she was formerly a he.

If the casting pool at college theatre is limited, it appears to be even smaller for black-box companies like Planet Earth. As with Barker's ambitious Macbeth, this company's Shakespeare send-up is a director's dream hindered by insufficient acting.

Director Christopher Haines has expertly grafted Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth onto the Old Comedy of Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae (The Congresswomen). In that short comedy, a group of women meets to rehearse a strategy for overthrowing the local government, which is run by the women's husbands. Time shifts and we join Stoppard's delirious Dogg's Hamlet, in which schoolchildren prepare for a production of Shakespeare's play. (Their lines are spoken in Dogg, a muddled tongue that's meant to mirror a modern audience's inability to understand Shakespeare's flowery prose.) Later, in Cahoot's Macbeth, we witness a private production of that play in a living room in Czechoslovakia. Eventually, the production is overtaken by a Communist inspector who mirrors Macbeth's tyranny of Scotland in a wry twist on contemporary comedy.

This is heady stuff which Haines, like Barker, makes modern with parallels to current issues and with an unerring understanding of the convoluted script. In an era where a Jesse Helms can challenge funding of the arts, a commie inspector commandeering Macbeth seems suddenly relevant. And the hilarious two-minute replay of Hamlet at the end of the first act reflects what audiences want in entertainment today: quick, brainless fun rather than art.

As with Barker's Macbeth, Haines' production is marred by inexperienced actors whose grasp of the material is exceeded by their director's. While at ASU the men onstage are trampled by their female counterparts, at Planet Earth both Joshua Feinman and Rex Whisler are the very picture of 17th-century royals, but neither appears to have the slightest inkling of what his lines mean. But then, as Shakespeare wrote, "the play's the thing." Both his Macbeth and Tom Stoppard's celebration of it have been given lucid, entertaining treatments on local stages, despite some second-rate acting. And despite Stoppard's ironic observation that "there are not two Macbeths, there is only one," these diverse productions prove that there are at least innumerable ways to approach a classic.

Macbeth continues through Saturday, November 2, at Paul V. Galvin Playhouse in ASU's Nelson Fine Arts Center, Tenth Street and Mill in Tempe.

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth and The Congresswomen (Ecclesiazusae) resumes Friday, November 1, and continues through Saturday, November 23, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela