If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

"Macbeth" (with a little "La Dispute")

Harford Stage is celebrating its 50th anniversary by opening with two plays instead of one! The productions are classics, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Marivaux’s “La Dispute”, and they are being presented in rotating repertory which allows you to see most of the same actors playing different roles in each play. Due to the high costs involved, repertory is rarely done by regional theatres these days so it is to Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak’s credit that he has taken on this herculean task and mostly succeeded.

“La Dispute” is a gorgeously rendered and attractively performed bauble; a light souffle of a comedy that has all the nutritional value of puff pastry. It’s one of those very French affairs with a one-joke premise. A pair of 18th Century aristocrats argue over which sex is likely to be unfaithful first. To this end they produce and then observe two sets of young virgins who meet, fall in love and prepare to cheat. The 70-minute (without intermission) farce has lots of talk, much energy and a rather jarring final tableau that left some in the audience I was seated with wondering, “Wait...what?” The performers are all energetic and easy on the eye (along with Jedediah Ike’s elegant white-on-white set and Joshua Pearson’s glorious costuming), but even at the current running time, this tiresome “Dispute” still seems longer than “Macbeth”.

“Macbeth” is as dark and foreboding as “La Dispute” is light and airy. Tresnjak, with his extraordinary designers, sets the tone immediately by bathing the stage in darkness and stripping the set down to its essentials. Three witches, led by the remarkable Kate MacCluggage, set the story in motion and the drama becomes darker and bloodier as the tale ultimately spins out of control. MacCluggage, with Mahira Kakkar and Kaliswa Brewster as her fellow “weird sisters”, leads the single-best representation of these otherworldly creatures that I’ve ever witnessed in a “Macbeth” production. Suttirat Ann Larlarb’s terrific costuming helps, of course, but the performances underneath all the gothic weirdness truly shine and mesmerize.

Matthew Rauch is a magnetic Macbeth who finds his journey to ultimate evil no easy task. Rauch makes understandable Macbeth’s weakness and lust for power under the guidance of his wife, Lady Macbeth, a superb Kate Forbes. Her mad scene late in the play is scarily brilliant and she is aided every step of the way by Rauch’s increasingly power-mad king. Watch as he spits out “She should have died hereafter...” when told of his wife’s death and you’ll understand a man devoured by equal parts pain and amorality.

Robert Eli’s grief-stricken, revenge-minded Macduff and Grant Goodman’s stalwart Banquo stand out in a company where some of the older performers, at times, lean towards the hammy. MacCluggage reappears as Lady Macduff and makes the most of what is often a throw-away scene. She may be the company’s most valuable player. Jane Shaw’s sound and Matthew Richards’ lighting add immeasurably to the overall effect of this staged nightmare. The play’s swift two-and-a-half hours running time flies by in a well-spoken, crisply directed and truly frightening rendering of the Bard’s classic tragedy. Happy Halloween.

“Macbeth” and “La Dispute” continue at Hartford Stage through November 10. There are discounts when tickets are purchased for both plays and select dates also offer the opportunity to see both productions on one day (evening and matinee). For further information call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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