The presidential campaign season is upon us, and with it, questions about the true character and intentions of our national leaders. More than ever, our candidates for office are obsessed with proving their personal integrity rather than their capacity to address substantive issues. In this light, the season calls less for merrymaking and gift giving than for political satire.
Enter the Live Theatre's production of Eugene Ionesco's Macbett. Yes, you read that correctly. What sounds like a new McDonald's offering of ambiguous animal parts is actually a satire on the nature of politics.
Shakespeare's Macbeth provides the basic plot for Ionesco's somewhat more complicated tale. (But Macbett is even darker than Shakespeare's dark play.) Macbett (Michael Troccoli) and Banco (Matthew Schaefer) are loyal generals in the service of King Duncan (Mark Salehar). Opposing them in battle are Baron Glamiss (Anita Chandwaney) and Baron Candor (Jacqueline Williams), who have rebelled because of the king's unchecked tyranny.
Candor and Glamiss aim to set up a more just kingdom. They chafe under Duncan's extortionary demands, which have grown to include 10,000 sheep, unnumbered tons of crops, and 1,000 young maidens. But their apparently honorable intentions are suspect, especially given how quickly they move--in a single scene of delightfully intricate wordplay--from declaring their love for Duncan to plotting his overthrow.
Of course, Candor and Glamiss never gain the opportunity to rule because they and their troops are slaughtered in a vicious battle with Macbett and Banco. But just when you think peace might return to the corrupt kingdom, three hideous witches (Chandwaney, Williams, and Cynthia Armstrong) wander along to excite the suspicions and ambitions of Macbett and Banco. Macbett and Banco claim to desire nothing more than to humbly serve their king. But there's sufficient doubt of that, especially with Macbett, that when Lady Duncan (Armstrong) reveals her own plots against her husband, the king, we're not surprised to find Macbett and Banco repeating the same treasonous statements that Candor and Glamiss had made. Duncan falls, Banco falls, Macbett falls, and the kingdom is ultimately left in the hands of a new tyrant, Macol (Schaefer), who makes no pretense about his own corrupt intentions.
Nor does Ionesco make any pretense about his intentions: leaders not only deceive and corrupt the societies under them, they generally depress the lives of their miserable subjects, as we see from the drunk who wanders onstage after being stabbed, shot, and forced to fight for both sides. According to Ionesco, little changes from one bloody ruler to the next. For the first act, this was fine. But by the second act, I wanted to see different ideas at play: OK, so all leaders are hacks--is there something special in their nature that makes them so predictably corrupt? If given the chance, would commoners fall to the same temptations? Neither Ionesco nor the Live Theatre offers an answer--and although they suggest the truth of the old adage that power corrupts, that doesn't seem to fully account for it.
Macbett falls short, like much satire, by continually hammering at its theme. And Macbett's satirical play on Macbeth (in Shakespeare's play the kingdom is ultimately left in the hands of a ruler we assume to be "good" merely because he tells us he is) is predictable, preachy, and thin.
The satire is further weakened by awkward staging and the frivolous choices of the director, A.C. Thomas. For example, what are we to make of the set, which resembles a jungle gym? Schaefer swings on it during a few of his monologues, suggesting a caged animal going berserk in a zoo--though I'm not sure how that adds to our understanding of the play. Otherwise, the set just seems to get in the actors' way, continually forcing them to duck when entering and exiting.
Thomas's choices also trivialized the production. Typical was his use of the lemonade seller: the fact that she peddles drinks on the battlefield reduces war to yet another spectator sport. But it was enough of a comment just to see the peddler onstage; the humor was diminished by having the seller present a bill to her customers, who then make an obvious show of searching their pockets for money. Perhaps it's my own narrow prejudice, but this device--the waitress--only detracts when it's used to make a play set in the past seem more contemporary.
Similarly, we didn't need to see Schaefer in the nude to know he got shot in the groin. If there was another purpose, it was lost on me. And the juxtaposition of the immaculately clean and spotless Macbett (in pressed white shirts) with the ever-dirty and bloody Banco (often bare-chested) cried out for interpretation, yet made no discernible comment on the play's action--unless to indicate the different fates of the two men, which we've already guessed from the witches' prophecy.
Troccoli's performance did stand out: he is a developed, textured Macbett, able to convey doubt while praising the king or extolling the virtues of a horrendous war. The witches were also an effective ensemble, full of mischief and provocation.
Schaefer played Banco in an annoying, tiresome monotone that was funny during his periodic shouts from offstage but fell flat during the bulk of his onstage work. Salehar's Duncan was similarly ineffective. It was cute at first to see the king taking refuge behind any available object (curtains, soldiers, his wife), but his whispered, understated character ultimately offered nothing to grab onto.
Watching the Live Theatre's production of Macbett brought to mind an old political cartoon: a sedate, statesmanlike Richard Nixon says, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all the time." In the final frame, Nixon, now sardonic and evil-looking, says, "And here's where I make a fool out of Lincoln." The cartoon succeeds by its suggestion of evil, and by both seriously and comically manipulating a common ideal. Macbett fails because, in its relentless pursuit of the message, it loses sight of the humor.