Theater Review - Mac attack

Political Macbeth runs out of jokes

PushPush Theater seems the wrong venue for the playhouse's sloppily irreverent production of Macbeth. The company's barbed, freewheeling take on "The Scottish Play" seems better suited to, say, the street outside the Republican National Convention. PushPush takes inspiration from the 2004 presidential campaign, but its Macbeth proves only as good as the quality of its individual jokes. At times the comedy gets fairly snappy, but the story itself sags so severely that it becomes no laughing matter.

Macbeth launches its pop-culture assault almost immediately. The first time we see Scotland's King Duncan (Brad Brooks), he wears coveralls suspiciously like Dubya's "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. The references to Scotland remain intact but the setting seems more like Texas, complete with drawling accents and a cowboy hat for the contested crown.

David Bruckner's video work provides some of Macbeth's cleverest details. Duncan appears almost entirely on video projection, with his official proclamations delivered like addresses to the nation. When Duncan receives battlefield news early in the play, we see the messenger on a smaller, inset screen like an embedded CNN reporter.

The production doesn't just rip on Red State Republicans, however. The play's comic relief doorman, who riffs on the souls at the gates of hell, peppers his speech with Democratic campaign slogans and put downs like, "Help is on the way" and accusations of "flip-flopping." It's a bit of a stretch, but it holds up better than you'd expect. Director Tim Habeger plays the doorman, captured on video like someone recorded on a black-and-white security camera.

Matt Stanton turns Macbeth into a trigger-happy, dim-witted soldier in camouflage pants. Macbeth can scarcely comprehend the three witches' prediction that he'll become king. PushPush doesn't just use the play to satirize contemporary politics, but to lampoon Macbeth itself. The themes and characters shrink from Shakespeare's grand proportions, with performances merely sarcastic and lacking passion.

With her fuzzy slippers and oversized martini glass, Lady Macbeth (Shelby Hofer) becomes a trailer-park gold-digger suitable for a nighttime soap opera. Instead of an archetypal figure of ambition, she's just a nag with bad manners and blood lust. Urging Macbeth to assassinate the king, she says, "Screw your courage to the sticking place," and makes a gratuitous humping gesture.

At times Stanton shows the capacity to play Macbeth for real. In the "Is this a dagger I see before me?" speech, he interacts with the shadow of a knife and delivers a serviceable, "straight" performance of the lines. Even some of his broad gestures work: In Macbeth's major soliloquy, he leaps back and forth from the stage to the steps leading up to the audience's seats as he weighs his options. But the actor never seems to get a fix on his character's personality.

Macbeth relies on a few amusing puns. When Banquo (Wade Tilton) tells Macbeth, "This diamond he greets your wife withal," he hands him a Neil Diamond CD. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene becomes a commercial for a cleaning product, and she exclaims, "Out damned spot!" like a TV housewife who needs more Calgon.

Too often the play forces jokes to the situation; when Macbeth hears the prophesy of Banquo's royal lineage, Tilton clucks like a chicken and crowned doll-babies drop below his legs. Tilton and Zoe Cooper portray Macbeth's murdering henchmen as a wholesome married couple, perhaps to imply that the supporters of immoral administrations share culpability, but they don't really make sense as characters. The production uses hand puppets and even skateboards, but the choices feel random rather than inspired.

In previous productions, PushPush deftly presented unconventional Shakespeare, like its Romeo and Juliet with one actress as Juliet and three actors who alternated as Romeo. But Macbeth's political concept runs out of steam and some of the players are in way over their heads with Shakespearean language. Like an elected official who doesn't keep his campaign promises, PushPush's Macbeth has some sharp moments, but it doesn't live up to its potential.