Shakespeare & Company's 'Macbeth': 'A tragedy of imagination'

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LENOX — Obie Award-winning director Melia Bensussen says that directing at Shakespeare & Company has been high on her bucket list. With the opening of "Macbeth" Sunday afternoon at the Tina Packer Playhouse, she can cross that item off her list.

The production marks another first for the well-known director. "I've never done this play," she said during a mid-June pre-rehearsal interview in the spacious Tina Packer Playhouse lobby where she was joined by her leading actors, Jonathan Croy (Macbeth) and Tod Randolph (Lady Macbeth), both of whom have done this play before.

Performed by only nine actors, Bensussen's production, which is scheduled to run through Aug. 5, unfolds in a reconfigured Tina Packer Playhouse with a set dominated by a pit.

Bensussen has been fascinated by the Macbeths. "I never realized how familiar they are," she said; "how flexible our moral centers can be in the face of vaulting ambition; how differently people behave when the same opportunities are offered."

Believed to first have been performed in 1606, "Macbeth's" moral issues strike Bensussen as distinctly American, especially now. No, she hasn't transposed "Macbeth" to Trump's America.

"This is not, this is not, this is not a play about Donald Trump," Croy interjected, "but he is everywhere."

Think American Gothic, Bensussen says. Think Civil War America with influences of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.

"This was Melville's favorite play," Bensussen said. "'Moby Dick' was his 'Macbeth.'"

For Croy, the play's issues haven't changed since he first played Macbeth 35 years ago at Shakespeare & Company. And yet, he says, intervening life experience, not to mention 20 years of marriage, have shifted the actor's understanding of the play, his appreciation of what he describes as "the lush and complex landscapes of his plays."

"I'm finding a lot more in 'Macbeth,'" Croy said. "I've been married 20 years and I love my wife dearly, but it's a complex relationship. It informs my relationship with Lady Macbeth."

Bensussen feels the relationship between the Macbeths gains from Croy and Randolph's histories not only with their roles but also with the company.

"There is a sense of familiarity and intimacy, a feeling of how real their marriage is," Bensussen said; "not good, not bad, just real."

This is Randolph's third go-round with Lady Macbeth. She first played the role when she was a student at Juilliard and last took on the role 27 years ago at Shakespeare & Company. "I know just about every line of the play," she quipped.

"I don't love her," Randolph said of Lady Macbeth, although, she added, "It does make it harder to play when I don't love her but we're not done yet. We are early in rehearsal."

"She wants what she wants when she wants it. That drive, there's no thinking about it, no concern about consequences. She just doesn't give a damn."

For Randolph, the turning point for Lady Macbeth is the murder of King Duncan when he and his retinue pay an overnight call on the Macbeths at their castle.

"We are witness to a separation between the two and then we see an attempt to try and fix that and then we're off in different directions," Randolph said.

"We see her notion of who she is and [we see] how she really is," Bensussen added.

"She deliberately breaks herself into pieces to achieve what she wants to achieve," Randolph said. "We get the first hint of the reality of what her choices might mean when she comes out of the room [where the murder has taken place] all bloody."

That pit that dominates Christina Todesco's set is emblematic, Bensussen suggests, of the darker, Poe-like sensibility at the heart of her production.

"[Literary critic] Harold Bloom calls 'Macbeth' a tragedy of imagination, meaning that Macbeth's imagination is so large he might as well [do] what he imagines," Benussen said.

"We all have these dark impulses. It's a unique person who hasn't been tempted at some point to take a small candy bar from a shelf [in a store].

"We make these things of darkness. We have to own these, recognize them.

"'This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine,'" she says, quoting Prospero from another Shakespeare play, "The Tempest."

"I love that quote."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6212.


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