On Friday December 7, 2012, I attended the production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth staged by the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY New Paltz and directed by Paul Kassel. This modern take on one of the Bard’s darkest and most powerful plays was set in a Eurasian country beset by civil war. The set’s scaffolding and broken columns portrayed a nation on the brink of ruin and in desperate need of rescue. The play opened to the sounds of modern warfare, with gunshots ringing out as civilians fled for cover. Male and female soldiers dressed in fatigues and armed with contemporary weaponry rushed onstage after them as skirmishes began. In a matter of moments, the fighting ended, and King Duncan (Evan Davis Russell) entered victoriously with his retinue.
This opening sequence was played to good effect, setting the stage for the events of violence and terror that would follow throughout the course of the play. Macbeth’s world begins in bloodshed and will inevitably end in likewise fashion. This production also took a refreshing take on the character of King Duncan, having him clothed in the business-suit attire of modern world leaders rather than the military get-up of his subordinates, indicating that this is a king who does not do his own fighting. When Macbeth (Stefan Brundage) is hailed by the Witches as “king,” it is not surprising because it was he, along with Banquo, who led King Duncan’s forces to defeat the traitors Macdonwald and the Thane of Cawdor in the preceding battle. Macbeth has proven himself to be a capable leader—why should he not be king?
The same can be said of Banquo (Paul Boothroyd), though he shows more humanity and patience. He is fated to be the father of kings, a fitting destiny for a worthy man willing to wait for his fortune. Boothroyd’s Banquo played a composed contrast to Brundage’s overeager Macbeth. Brundage’s take on the title character was an extreme but effective one; from the outset, the audience is acutely aware of the instability within him. Therefore, Lady Macbeth (Robin Epes) is the perfect match for him. She is the cool and calculated half of the pair. It is she who harnesses and realizes Macbeth’s and her own ambition. Epes successfully captured the essence of Lady Macbeth’s character. Although arrayed in distinctly feminine and high-fashion clothing, this Lady Macbeth “unsexes” herself with her deep voice, aggression, and intensity.
The play’s minor characters were played well, though some were more memorable than others. The female actresses in the male roles accented the modernity of the setting, a highlight of the entire production. Shaquana Bell’s Porter gave the audience a break from the negative atmosphere. A breath of fresh air, her extemporaneous take on the Porter’s speech was humorous and memorable. Michael O’Connor appropriately portrayed the vengeful Macduff, and Brendan Quinn was a suitable Malcolm in the production.
This production did, however, have some minor flaws in my opinion. Although Kassel chose to re-locate and update the events of the play—a bold decision as a director—the titles of nobility and place names remained those of medieval Scotland, which made for an awkward incongruity between time periods. Such awkwardness occurs in other productions like Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, where the language and setting are of two different times, but it might just be a personal preference of mine to not mix archaic dialogue with a contemporary setting. (Then again, altering the dialogue would change Shakespeare’s words, which is a travesty to even consider.) Kassel also chose to present a bizarre interpretation of the Witches, instead characterizing their presence on stage as merely spiritual possessions of other bodies. On one hand, this choice made for interesting and rather chilling moments on stage; however, I was slightly confused when random characters were suddenly emitting eerily robotic vocals—it made me think that everyone had the potential for becoming a witch.
Overall, I did enjoy the production very much, and I have a lot of respect for the director, players, and the stage crew who assembled a beautiful and effective set. Out of the few Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in my life, the one put on by the SUNY New Paltz Theatre Department was certainly the most memorable, and I commend all of those involved for their successful interpretation of a timeless Shakespearean classic.