‘Distant present’ setting helps IU Theater give ‘Macbeth’ new life

Matthew Waterman
Herald Times Bloomington
February 8, 2016

Entering the Wells-Metz Theatre for Indiana University’s production of “Macbeth,” it’s clear what the witches are referring to when they speak of “the fog and filthy air.” Haze swirls ceaselessly around the earthy, majestic set.

The show begins with a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. From that moment on, “Macbeth” is a twisted, atmospheric journey through the abrupt rise and fall of Scotland’s most legendary king (which, historically speaking, was not so abrupt as the Bard makes it out to be).

The IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance offers “Macbeth” for this year’s usual Shakespeare slot. The production is magnificently directed by David Kote, a third-year MFA directing student.

The play follows its title character, beginning as a mere thane in the kingdom of Scotland. When three enigmatic witches prophesize that Macbeth will ascend to the king’s throne, a seed of monstrous ambition is planted in him.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth quickly become embroiled in a game of violence and manipulation. The power couple is as tormented by their own moral collapse as they are by the difficulty of accomplishing their misdeeds.

The show stars Ian Martin. Martin seems entirely comfortable as Macbeth; he exudes a palpable air of confidence and tension. His concentration is unwavering. Martin gives us a bold and refreshing interpretation of Shakespeare’s great antihero.

Playing opposite him as Lady Macbeth is M.F.A. acting student Abby Lee. Lee takes on one of Shakespeare’s most daunting characters and mirrors Martin’s success in doing so. She mounts a performance that you can’t help but watch with your eyes wide open.

The rest of the acting performances vary in quality, but particularly memorable is the comic relief that Chris J. Handley provides as the drunken porter. Handley’s physical comedy chops are an unexpected treat in “Macbeth.”

Kote’s production, conceived as taking place in “the distant present, in the imagination of the observer,” is unique. But, thankfully, Kote doesn’t pursue uniqueness for its own sake. This isn’t Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” but it’s not Kote’s “Macbeth” either; it’s plenty of both.

“Macbeth” is a stunningly designed show. Bridgette Dreher’s set and Matthew Benton Wofford’s lighting are both elegant and practical. The costuming by Kelsey Nichols gives “Macbeth” its timelessness.

The sound design, a collaboration between Tom Oldham and composer Kimberly Osberg, provides an ominous undercurrent throughout.

In “Macbeth” can be found some of Shakespeare’s darkest and most beautiful verse. The visual splendor does not distract from the language, but rather enhances its impact.

“Macbeth” takes place in a time of constant violence. That violence is brilliantly realized by Professor Adam McLean’s fight choreography. Usually wielding swords and shields, the actors put on realistic and engaging stage combat.

IU Theatre’s production breathes new life (and new death) into this barbarous Shakespearean tragedy.