Seen Off Broadway: This season will go down as the one where projection came onto its own, not just on Broadway (exemplified by the thrilling staging of Sunday in the Park with George, at Studio 54) but Off and Off Off as well. The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, brings video to the Bard. Under Rupert Goold’s imaginative direction designer Anthony Ward takes an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach—the sink, front and center at all times, is a prominent set piece in a grimly institutional staging (complete with ominous freight elevator) that suggests a Stalinist-run hospital, where the dead and the walking wounded congregate as Macbeth’s bloody rise picks up steam. (We see the three witches, who at one point perform a semi-rap number written by sound designer Adam Cork, as nurses and servants.) Video designer Lorna Heavey complements the look with sudden flourishes of back wall projections, including floods of corpuscles (there’s plenty onstage, too, courtesy of some of the most convincing stage blood I’ve seen), Soviet-era military parades marching by, and as you might expect the greenery of Birnam Wood seeming to arm itself against the tyranny. It’s quite an active display from the design team, best utilized for the banquet scene, which is played twice: At the end of Act I, where Macbeth sees the ravaged ghost of Banquo advancing, and at the top of the second act, where it is simply a figment of his psyche.
Patrick Stewart, a stalwart presence who is at his best preparing, then eating, a sandwich while plotting some wickedness or another, plays Macbeth. With Kate Fleetwood portraying Lady Macbeth as a kind of trophy wife, wickedly alluring in Christine Rowlands’ costumes, the conception here is that all the dirty deeds restore the aging second-stringer to deadly potency before bringing him down, and I felt I saw that reflected in Howard Harrison’s lighting, which gets more vigorous with every twist in the tale. And I know I saw a dagger before me; Cork’s splendid sound design, the richest I’ve ever heard at the Harvey Theater, put it there. There’s a little sting in the soundscape at that moment in the show that places an unseen blade within reach right in front of you, a marvelous piece of auditory stagecraft. At times I felt the production was overdone: With so many guns around it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for combatants to pick up long knives at the close, chivalry clearly being dead in this environment. But the excesses of this London import serve one of Shakespeare’s most enduring texts, one that lends itself to any period where absolute power threatens to corrupt absolutely. Macbeth closes at BAM on March 22 but will reopen for a limited run at the Lyceum on Broadway.
From the Chicago area comes Adding Machine, which could only have originated in the Second City—you rarely see such lumpen proletariat faces onstage in New York, least of all in a musical. But the woebegone quality has been successfully harnessed for a unique and unlikely show, which re-imagines Elmer Rice’s American Expressionist piece, a flop in 1923, as a period-set chamber opera that makes few concessions for a 2008 audience. The theme, however, is timeless. Mr. Zero (the thickset Joel Hatch, who in Kristine Knanishu’s rumpled outfits looks like he mistook the Minetta Lane Theatre for a speakeasy and showed up for last call), beset at home by the grasping Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer), finds solace in his job as one of many anonymous accountants cranking out reams of paperwork. He ignores the mild affections of colleague Daisy Devore (Amy Warren) and retreats behind his green eyeshades; the lighting, by Keith Parham, replicates a life lived through blinders. Informed that a machine will replace him after a quarter-century at his crepuscular office, he kills his boss. His execution whisks him to the pastoral beauties of Elysian Fields. But the afterlife is as uncomfortable for him as life itself—which may be just as well, as he learns there is a reckoning to be had for adjusting too well to indentured servitude as a cog in the wheel.
Composer Josh Schmidt and his co-librettist, Jason Loewith, have fashioned a compelling, amusing, and moving musical from Rice’s portrait of dehumanization, and have arguably darkened it a few shades (to a clockwork orange, perhaps) in the telling. (If you’ve seen the 1969 film version of Rice’s original, with Milo O’Shea, Billie Whitelaw and the inspired casting of Phyllis Diller as the harridan Mrs. Zero, you’re a more dedicated film buff than I.) The use (but not overuse) of synthesizers underscores the monotony of an existence too readily given over to drab routines and the merciless hum of technology, and the three principals are fully, achingly human—Mr. Zero, a reprobate and racist, is played without apologies by Hatch, and Baer and especially Warren are terrific as the two very different, but similarly misunderstood, women in his lives.
Realizing that an intermission-less 90-minute production of its type might quickly become a grind, director David Cromer (Orson’s Shadow) has woven a thrilling design from the gloom. Takeshi Kata’s perfectly oppressive home and office settings, underlit by Parham in a noir-ish style, give way to the brilliant abundance of Elysian Fields, which is overhung with a trellis bursting with flowers. Discretion advises against revealing the final iteration of the set, but I can say that Peter Flaherty’s initially modest use of video explodes into a furiously mechanical display that in tandem with sound designer Tony Smolenski IV’s conveyance of the pitiless score sends you reeling from the theatre. Distinct from the usual run of machine-tooled musicals, Adding Machine adds up.
Hunting and Gathering, at Primary Stages, begins with Ruth (Keira Naughton) offering us a tour of her scattershot life and careers, with video taking us through her many, many New York apartments. Playwright Brooke Berman based the show on her misadventures in borough real estate, which keep Ruth colliding with uptight ex-boyfriend Jesse (Jeremy Shamos), his looser-limbed half-brother Astor (Michael Chernus), and Jesse’s volatile collegiate girlfriend Bess (Mamie Gummer). Slight but peppery, the brightly acted show confirms what residents have always known: That sex and the city can be complicated to sort out, but not as hard or as satisfying as finding a cozy one-bedroom to call your own.
Director Leigh Silverman is perfectly at ease with this sort of production, which gets a real boost from set designer David Korins. He may be the hardest-working designer working on the local theatre scene, with show after show this season and last, but Hunting and Gathering proves that he’s buying and not renting where inspiration is concerned. His set this time is an ingenious assemblage of moving boxes, piled high in a Manhattan skyline shape, some of which turn out to be facades concealing refrigerators and closets. An LED readout in the center of the boxes sets the time, place, and tone of each scene. Miranda Hoffman’s fresh-from-the-closet costumes, Ben Stanton’s citified lighting, and Robert Kaplowitz’s original music and sound design sustain the playful if frazzled atmosphere. The show runs through March 1 at 59E59 Theaters.
There are no projections in Crimes of the Heart. And not much in the way of memorable acting or staging, either, in this Roundabout revival at the Laura Pels. Cards on the table: After the 1986 film version of Beth Henley’s influential but dated slice of Southern-fried American Gothic, and a crackling 2001 Second Stage revival that put it on life support, I have no need to revisit those loony Magrath sisters down home in Mississippi ever again, unless The Wooster Group resets it in outer space or some other concept. No, scratch that—while it still has its mild charms, there is simply no way to refresh this particular, of its era (1979) show, and the only way to get its mojo working is through dynamite casting and direction. Not here: actress Kathleen Turner, who would have been a brassy Meg back in the day, is strictly summer stock with her tic-filled trio. Only the gossamer-tressed Lily Rabe, as Babe, makes much of an impression in David Murin’s country clothes. An ill-considered blonde wig deforms Sarah Paulson, as Meg, and elfin Jennifer Dundas overacts the part of the lonely Lenny to near-derangement. When sisterhood eludes its actresses you don’t have Crimes of the Heart, just a criminally dull two-and-a-half hours at the theatre.
Figuring she had to give the audience something for their trouble, set designer Anna Louizos has joined the Trading Spaces brigade on New York’s stages and built an entire, nicely detailed house for the Magraths. As her designs tend toward gigantism it’s a bit much, overhanging the undercharged performers—only the living room and kitchen are used—but it does give us something to look at as attention wanders. Natasha Katz’s lighting and John Gromada’s sound design and score are earnest but will not fly to the tops of their resumes. Maybe if the composers of Adding Machine turned their talents to a musicalization of the piece, we’d have something—but that is not a suggestion.—Robert Cashill
Scenery: All Scene All Props
Scenic Artwork: James Rowse
Stage Engineering: Weld-Fab Stage Engineering Ltd.
Video: Stage Sound Services
Scenery: Daedalus Design and Production, Inc.
Lighting: Big Apple Lights
Audio: Masque Sound
Video: Sound Associates
Hunting and Gathering
Lighting and Audio: GSD Productions
Crimes of the Heart
Scenery Construction: global scenic services inc.
Additional Scenic Elements: Tom Carroll Scenery
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Masque Sound