Hartford Arts Examiner: Macbeth[1969]

"Macbeth 1969" examines psychological toll of war in Long Wharf premier

By Andrew Beck, Hartford Arts Examiner

"Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane" once again in Eric Ting's Vietnam War influenced adaptation of Shakespeare' Scottish play, called "Macbeth (1969)" in this new incarnation, in many ways it feels like Yale Repertory Theatre (1969) be come to Long Wharf Theatre, bringing to mind the socio-political productions that marked the early years of Long Wharf's cross-town counterpart.

Infusing a classic play, quite often Shakespeare or Brecht, with the consciousness of a era of societal upheaval, Robert Brustein's Yale Rep earned a reputation for its anarchic presentations that challenged form and structure, frequently to offer comment on the ongoing Vietnam War or similar timely issue. Ting approaches his version of "Macbeth" in a similar manner, cutting the cast to six and setting the production in veterans' hospital somewhere in Middle America at Christmastime to which the damaged survivors of the Southeast Asian war are sent for rehabilitation. He has judiciously cut and rearranged the Shakespearean original, while occasionally adding lines and ideas from other sources, notably Tim O'Brien's extraordinary chronicle of soldiers on the frontlines of Vietnam, "The Things They Carried," in order to elucidate and clarify some of the points he is wishing to make. And, of course, his adaptation is filled with contemporary relevance.

That Ting, the Associate Artistic Director at Long Wharf, is not 100 per cent successful is only mildly disappointing, particularly in the unfocused and languid early scenes, because the production does grow in insight and power as the evening progresses building to an exciting and visually thrilling conclusion. For the most part, Ting's resetting of the play to the Vietnam era at a time when more and more Americans were questioning the war and resenting the servicemen and women who participated works from a realistic perspective. More important, the story of Macbeth, which can often feel like a nightmare with its prophesying witches, judgmental ghosts and floating daggers, allows Ting to expound upon the psychic and often fatal damage of war long after the fighting has ended.

In Ting's version, two soldiers are seen in the hospital unit fresh off of heroic action in a recent skirmish. Soldier #2, as the Banquo character, is wheelchair bound and wrapped in bandages that cover most of his face, which immediately establishes the toll of war. The ambulatory Macbeth (identified as Soldier #1) arrives with no discernible injuries, but requires admission nonetheless. It isn't immediately evident, but it seems that Soldier #1 represents someone suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and that his dreams, nightmares and capability for violence grow out of this condition.

In a masterful conceit, Ting, who also directed his adaptation, uses the three nurses who staff the unit as stand-ins for the Weird Sisters, the witches who predict Macbeth's rise to power. It's initially jarring to hear him called "Thane of Cawdor," though Ting's production notes indicate that he is trying to recreate the confusion and alienation that many returning soldiers feel, particularly those who met with public scorn back in the sixties and seventies. The nurses also voice lines spoken by other characters in Shakespeare's original, most significantly with Nurse #2 emerging as Soldier #1's wife, or in other words, as Lady Macbeth. The other nurses speak lines attributed in "Macbeth" to messengers, guards, and servants as necessary to forward the plot, with Nurse #3 melding into the doomed Lady Macduff and Nurse #1 standing in during a significant sequence as Macbeth's servant Seyton.

In order for this condensation and combination to ultimately work, the audience does need at least a cursory awareness of the plot and major characters of "Macbeth." That would explain why a detailed plot summary has been stuffed into the production's playbill, although someone who has seen one or two previous productions of "Macbeth" should have no trouble following the show, once one accepts the style and contractions that Ting employs in his adaptation.

In addition, to stress Ting's message regarding "wounded warriors," another page is inserted into the program with information on post-traumatic stress syndrome and its impact not only on Vietnam veterans but on those who more recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. A program note by the adapter/director along with details provided in the character descriptions fill in some more details about just what Ting is attempting to do in this version. For example, a character called "The Civilian" who acts out the part of Macduff, is described as a draft dodger and against the war, characteristics not readily apparent in Ting's adaptation or necessarily in the action of the play. Similarly, Nurse #3 is identified as having been recently abandoned by her husband, Macduff, again information not easily discerned through any action or language in the play. It's easy for an audience to miss out on a lot of Ting's thinking regarding the connections between what we see on stage and actual experiences from the Vietnam war, which limits a fuller understanding of his objectives.

Although the actors are speaking in Shakespeare's verse, their delivery at least in the initial stages of the drama is rather flat and non-distinguished. McKinley Belcher III plays his Macbeth as a cocky youth, confident to have completed a tour of duty and eager to enjoy the company of his wife. He very believably conveys his character's building anger and rage, as he feels manipulated and judged by the people around him, leading him further and further into murderous actions. As his fellow soldier, Barret O'Brien conveys a caution and weariness that emerges through layers of bandages, and later, an unexpected brio as the tired, frustrated civilian prompted to a reluctant violence necessary to end the bloodshed on stage.

As the nurses, Socorro Santiago offers an ingenious take on a veteran charge nurse, down to the line of white that curls through her jet black hair. She possesses the imperious wisdom of a practiced clinician and a no-nonsense attitude toward her fellow nurses and patients. Jackie Chung is the pregnant and somewhat docile Nurse #3, who attempts to maintain an upbeat presence and extends a more compassionate hand to her charges.

Shirine Babb demonstrates a cold efficiency as a nurse which translates well into her more sultry Lady Macbeth persona whose control in manipulating her husband is contrasted with her stone faced descent into madness. George Kulp makes an appearance as a blond, bland, glad-handing politician seeking re-election who lacks any connection to the men he dispatched to the fighting front and who ultimately suffers from it at the bloody hands of Macbeth.

In another similarity to Yale Rep, this time to some recent endeavors at the former downtown church, the Long Wharf's mainstage space is used as it never has been before, with the walls along the two side sections removed and the entire thrust area and previously unseen backstage spaces pressed into service to accommodate Mimi Lien'sbreathtaking design. She has created a central glassed in nursing station surrounded by two long hallways and a patient unit with three beds, complete with mesh curtain, linoleum flooring and walls painted off-white and traditional "hospital green." This creates the sensation that this is one of the most expansive sets ever created for the Long Wharf Stage, just as Yale Rep's designers have recently opened the floor or used every inch of stage space from the back brick wall to the extreme sides for various productions. It is genuinely exhilarating to see Long Wharf's space used so comprehensively.

Tyler Micoleau has overcome multiple challenges in his lighting design as well, with a mix of strobes, fluorescent and warning lights complementing traditional theatrical lighting to convey impending storms, battle memories and medical emergencies. His lighting is especially key to a deliciously inventive scene in which the increasingly irrational Soldier #1 undergoes electroshock therapy at the hands of the nurses as they spout some of the witches' dialogue. Similarly, Ryan Rumery has amassed an array of sound effects that convey the battlefields of war and of the mind that are meant to disturb and disorient. Toni Leslie James has dressed her nurses in impeccably traditional garb--hats were still common in 1969--while outfitting Macbeth in realistic camouflage fatigues. David Anzuelo has guided a lengthy physical fight that on opening night allowed accommodated with mild audience delight the retrieval of a firearm that had unexpectedly gotten "out of reach."

While Ting has kept the intermissionless evening moving fairly steadily, there are a few slow spots, particularly in some conversations that Macbeth has with Nurse #1 toward the end that jeopardize the momentum. He certainly doesn't stint on the stage blood, however, which he allows to flow profusely as befits a play about the cutthroat nature of politics and war.

The play and Belcher's performance in particular gain in power in the closing moments of the production, as Macbeth piles chairs, couches and nightstands against the doors to the unit to keep away the approaching army. It's here when the evening came together for me, with the extent of Soldier #1's hallucinations becoming more palpable and believable. I found myself at last comfortable with the mix of reality vs. nightmare, accepting the Macbeth story as both symbol and portent of the psychological toll of war.

"Macbeth 1969" is an interesting experiment, well worth seeing. Despite those occasions when it stretches the similarities between the Vietnam and the Scottish wars, the evening ultimately packs a punch that makes the experience any theater lover will appreciate.