By Alexander Bianchi and Austin Retzlaff
Oberlin’s Department of Theatre and Dance opened their season of theatrical performances with Justin Emeka’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth last Thursday evening. The decision to set the play in the American South amidst the wrecked aftermath of the Civil War was thought-provoking; however, this vision was not executed well enough to save the play from weaknesses in its acting and technical departments.
Although Matthew Wright was endlessly watchable in his two roles (King Duncan and the comical Doctor), and Lauren Friedlander ’11 made Lady Macbeth’s downward spiral into insanity compelling, the rest of the cast did not exactly live up to expectations. Part of the problem here was that the actors often did not project their voices sufficiently in order for the audience to hear their dialogue; as a result, the audience was often confused as to where the action was headed. Macbeth’s transformation from an ambitious yet loyal soldier to a cold-blooded murderer was not effectively conveyed by Tip Scarry ’11. There was a clear distinction between “conflicted Macbeth” and “evil Macbeth,” which reduced the audience’s compassion for him. Macbeth’s fate is intended to be tragic because we mourn for the loss of the good man he once was, but here, the transition felt too abrupt.
The death of Macbeth’s fellow soldier and confidant Banquo is a pivotal moment in the play, and although it was the highlight of the night, it exemplified the problems with the production in general. Banquo’s murderers were dressed in the ghostly garb of the Ku Klux Klan; they overpowered him, slipped a noose around his neck and then lynched him. The stage was plunged into darkness, and the last thing the audience saw was Banquo spinning slowly ten feet above the stage–a terrible reminder of the generations of hate our country struggled to overcome at the end of the Civil War. However, there were a lot of things compromising this stark vision. First of all, the wire supporting the actor as the noose lifted him was too plainly visible. We could all see the Klan member as he tried to attach it discreetly. This ruined the illusion that we were watching something visceral and spontaneous.
Also, although the play was set in the South, this change in setting was not emphasized enough. Although Friedlander and Wright spoke in Southern accents, none of the other major actors used period-appropriate voicing. The action was confined to the yard of an old colonial house, making the world of the play feel small and anonymous. The Southern setting did not change the context of the play; it made us think about race relations, but not about how race affected the characters’ relationships with each other. As a result, the evocation of the KKK felt jarring and too extreme.
Ultimately, the production was hurt most by its limited scale. Hall Auditorium’s size was insufficient to convey the scope that the director clearly intended. By keeping the action in an anonymous rural environment, and not connecting the issues of the play to the national political issues of the time, Emeka missed his opportunity to cause audiences to rethink Macbeth. His version had strong points, but they weren’t strong enough to make us overlook the dramatic and technical problems within the play.