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'Macbeth' is an epic pageant of violence, madness

Who defines a nation? Is it a man weak in isolated rant, narrowed with self-serving ambition? One who is inflated by superstition and conflated with lies? What becomes of such a man? What becomes of his nation?

Shakespeare asked and answered these questions when he wrote “Macbeth” in the 17th century, and director Jose Luis Valenzuela does so again this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The first of OSF’s 2019 summer season, the Scottish play opened last week in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

Danforth Comins is Macbeth, at first unsure of his destiny, confused by the puzzles and prophecies of the three witches, weird sisters they. He cavils and equivocates as ambition and green, green jealousy war with what remnant of humanity remains in his soul. Amy Kim Waschke is Lady Macbeth, and she is evil to the core, goading her lord to murder, to seize the throne. Both are splendid in malevolent, manipulative sexuality, and together they are grotesque in this epic pageant of violence and madness.

There is no gratuitous blood in this OSF performance of “Macbeth,” no sprays of red striping the stage. It’s only the first murder, that of the king of Scotland, that coats Comins and Waschke’s hands — and the souls of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth murders eight times, and there’s blood at each killing, but that blood proves the scene and does not detract. Each murder is center stage as if Valenzuela wants us to viscerally experience the acts, to see clearly and fully understand the dissolution of a man and the destruction of a nation.

The play “Macbeth” is driven by dreams and surrounded with superstition; liars and truth tellers are confused and convoluted. The three witches, played by Robin Goodrun Nordli, Miriam A. Laube and Erica Sullivan, are mysterious, magical and vicious spirits. They toy with Macbeth, invading his sleep and casting spells.

Hecate, played by Michele Mais, appears in a peal of thunder and burst of lighting, smoke billowing to cast her shadow and power across the stage. Hecate chastises the witches for interfering with humans, and Maise is a voodoo queen, her queer voice calling the three back to order. As Hecate on opening night, Mais seemed to control even the heavens because with her command and at her gesture, the clouds above cleared to reveal a quarter-moon, bright above the Elizabethan.

Loyalty is tested, and those who surround Macbeth turn away in fear and distrust. Macbeth’s closest alliances flee — Banquo, played by Al Espinosa, is murdered, and Macduff, played by Chris Butler, flees. Macduff is transformed from a passive bystander into a tower of retribution when his family is murdered — as Macduff, Butler screams his enraged grief, and the audience cowers in the face of his pain.

Shakespeare classicists will judge this “Macbeth” against their favorite performances. They will watch for the play’s most famous scenes, the best-known lines and will find them superb in the 2019 OSF production. There’s the horror of that first murder, Duncan dying in his bed; the growing madness of Lady Macbeth as scorpions fill her mind, a spot that won’t wash out as hands endlessly turn and finally, her sex turned to dust; the banquet where the dead sit at their Lord’s table visible only to the one they haunt; the cauldron circled by three weird sisters chanting, “double, double toil and trouble;” and Macduff’s recognition and reversal to righteous vengeance.

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter tragedies. In 2009, Gale Edwards’ OSF production was performed in about two hours, resulting in sometimes frenetic dialog. OSF’s 2019 production is three hours long, and that run time allows a line or action to hang suspended while the audience is hypnotized in wonderment. Time is drawn out, lengthening and stretching the tension so that the viewer can fully appreciate a blaze of color, the paint of blood, the insanity unfolding on the stage. A heart beats during these moments to pace the narrative, becoming louder and faster as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth descend into hell.

Valenzuela intended his “Macbeth” to be a political play. He dissects nationalist sentiment and warns of the consequences of just a single man’s self-centered ambition and the dangers of suspicion. We experienced Valenzuela’s marvelous machinations and very human political commentary in last season’s “Destiny of Desire,” and while “Destiny” ended in redemption, Valenzuela’s “Macbeth” ends in absolute self-destruction. The green worms of jealousy and greed are poisonous seeds that can flourish in any soul.

“Macbeth” continues in the Elizabethan Theatre through July 28 and then returns Sept. 11 to Oct. 11. A sign-interpreted performance is scheduled for July 19. “Macbeth” will be performed in the Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave., July 31 to Sept. 6 in both evening and matinee performances. The play runs about 3 hours with one intermission and is appropriate for older middle school students who are academically prepared to understand how the play uses sexuality and violent imagery as theatrical devices. For tickets or more information, including an interview with Valenzuela, see OSFAshland.org, or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham