The bleak and barren world in A Noise Within’s Macbeth is as much an outward visual of the inner state of Shakespeare’s title character as it is the setting for the story itself. Moody, shrouded in shadows, and sparsely but strikingly accented, it has the look and feel of a timeless purgatory.
The design team’s color palette rarely strays into anything brighter than black and dark earth tones but, when it does, its dramatic flourishes are striking: a vermilion gown for Lady Macbeth (costumed by Jenny Foldenauer), a macabre funhouse-inspired mouth literally at the gate of hell attended by the Porter (rendered by Susan Gratch), and crayon colored puppet witches (constructed by Sean T. Cawelti) manipulated by tall, slender men in black. Gratch (who is also responsible for the lighting in addition to the scenic design) uses a blood red fog to illuminate the witches and overhead instruments to cast shadows over the warriors, creating an effect that turns their eyes into empty, black sockets making them look like walking wraiths. [pictured below left Elijah Alexander, and right, Alexander with Leith Burke as Banquo]
It is brilliant sensory work by the designers and serves a production in which director Larry Carpenter tracks the evolution of evil in both a physical and mystical way. Do the witches drive Macbeth’s (Elijah Alexander) ambition or does he simply respond to the physical urges already present within him? Alexander’s Macbeth is a unique combination of the two aspects, hollowly human in one moment but prone to sudden flashes of emotional distress that make him eerily unpredictable in the next. The changes aren’t typical or overt, as in some Macbeths I’ve seen, and it is this subtle complexity that makes it a riveting character portrait.
After playing a luminous Marina in A Noise Within’s Pericles at the beginning of the season, Jules Willcox comes full circle with her performance of Lady Macbeth. Predominantly strong and forceful, she also displays a surprising childlike quality when her mind splinters under the weight of her misdeeds.
Carpenter facilitates the split by focusing on the death of the Macbeths’ child (which takes place before the play begins) to suggest that the couple’s lust for the crown springs, in part, from the pain and grief of their personal suffering. Lady Macbeth keeps her husband’s letters in the empty baby basket while a cloth doll becomes a broken reminder to both of them of their loss.
As the Celebrant Witches (and a number of other well-drawn one-scene characters), Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera, and Jeremy Rabb bring the supernatural out of the shadows and into the physical world. They make daggers appear and disappear in triplicate, whisper into the empty spaces with guttural glee, and snap in and out of character with spooky precision. The only distraction in their otherwise splendid performances, for me, was their cackling old lady voices. Also of note are Matt Orduña and David DeSantos, who deliver well-grounded performances as King Duncan and MacDuff, respectively.
Darkness is the life’s blood of Macbeth and you’ll get plenty of it in A Noise Within’s impressive production. Everything, and everyone, in Carpenter’s vision serves the shadows in one way or another and that in itself makes it a fascinating study.
Ellen Dostal, Shakespeare in LA
March 15 – May 11, 2014*
A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
Tickets: (626) 356-3100 or
*An ASL interpreted performance will take place on May 9 at 8pm. Conversations with the artists follow the performances on Friday, April 11 at 8pm, Sunday, April 27 at 2pm and Friday, May 9 at 8pm.