Freehold's East Hall Theatre; ends Sat., March 13
My wise old journalism mentor once warned me that editors are like chefs who never like the taste of a soup unless they've pissed in it a little. That goes double for directors of Shakespeare plays. They can't bear to admit that he wrote it right in the first place: They feel a compulsion to impose a Big Idea of their own on the play. The big idea of Beth Raas' Ghost Light Theatricals production of Macbeth is that the Weird Sisters, who tempt the hero into reaching for a crown that's not strictly his, are not ugly-ass witches but buffed and beaming broadcast journalists. The director believes such people coldheartedly exploit America's hellbroth of bad news, in order "to enhance someone else's disaster."
This is wrong on two counts. First, the evil of media types is not that they impose their will on us, but that they meekly pass on the lies of the politicians who do manipulate us. Second, turning Macbeth's witch tormentors into bland broadcasters violates their essential identity. Whenever things go wrong in Shakespeare country, it's because "degree is shaked"—the natural order of society is upset by somebody's ambition. The Weird Sisters are forces of chaos from outside of nature who shake up society like a devastating quake. But these TV witches (Kelly Hyde and Marguerite DiGiovanni, abetted by cameraperson Rik Deskin) are part of the Establishment. They soothe and smooth the most jolting news, like the 1980s Seattle Times copy desk, which reporters used to call "the Blanderizer." They're not weird or otherworldly. They're normal to a fault.
In this modern-dress production, characters often deliver their speeches into the witches' TV camera and are depicted on TV monitors. The idea is that the baleful influence of TV enchants them to perform wickedness, but that's an abstract concept. Onstage, the effect is to distance and tamp down all passions and reduce speeches to emotion-free broadcastese.
Raas' other updates also damage the play. Macbeth's cell phone keeps ringing the melody of "Mack the Knife." Using guns instead of blades is wrong, because the play depends on the idea of wounds as mouths, and bullets don't make mouth-shaped wounds. A paper-slicing device from Kinko's is yanked apart and used as a sword. The only funnier confusion of Shakespearean weaponry I've ever seen was the legendary Star Wars–style UW production of Titus Andronicus using swords and phasers.
All of the big, bad ideas could easily be redeemed in the performance. But the cast's elocution is not ready for prime time, the pace and tone are irregular, and not a single character comes alive. This Macbeth doth foster sleep. TIM APPELO
Elephants Are Contagious
JEM Arts Center; ends Sat., March 27
The seven vignettes comprising this theater piece, each of them apparently inspired by a surrealist painting, are unabashedly surrealistic themselves: Dreams unfold within dreams, homicidal doppelgängers merge, dolls are rape victims, war is a lumbering metaphor for life itself. The danger here isn't incomprehensibility, because it isn't all that important to make sense, really. The danger is making too much sense, taking your surrealism too seriously, until all that analogous bulk topples in a heap of overwrought subtexts and forged weirdness. You know: third nipple, third eye—yeah, yeah, we get it, we get it.
Fortunately, the folks of Strike Anywhere Productions have a lot of gusto and humor and just the right energy to pull this stuff off. The subject matter, such as it is, is of the identity-and-reality slippage variety, a mishmash of crepuscular scenarios that wind out like a nightmare collision of Salvador Dalí's melting clocks and David Lynch's backward-talking dwarfs. In one skit, the clerk in a dead-letter office dreams the contents of the letters to life, each time also giving birth to a new self. In another, a prisoner is locked up with the man who murdered his wife, who becomes him. Think Gregor Samsa, or Robert Blake in Lost Highway.
The production's not a total success. Toward the end, some of the vignettes seem to bleed into each other—and not surrealistically—and the gender politics can get so relentlessly vicious as to become numbing. Fortunately, no one episode is allowed to wear itself out. Everything clips along, and between vignettes are these wonderfully absurd and hilarious dance numbers that function as a sort of connective tissue holding the whole play together.
This is Strike Anywhere's first show, and it's a promising piece of work, vital and challenging. It's exciting to think what they'll do next. Theyhave the potential to really light it up. RICHARD MORIN