In 1999, a call for a moratorium on producing Shakespeare came from, of all places, the ranks of the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company. Director Matthew Warchus' idea sounded like one the most thought-provoking theatrical arguments to be put forward in the last quarter-century. "We've had Shakespeare musicals," Warchus said, "we've had Shakespeare in the nude. The only thing we haven't done culturally is not perform him for ten years--which is something someone should try."

It's a compelling, intriguing point: Can the work of one dramatist be so frequently produced--overproduced, perhaps--that the qualities which make the plays so universal, so beloved, and so perfect devolve into a hazy, gauzy blur? Each side of the argument may find support in two recent New York productions of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Kelsey Grammer in Macbeth.(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Kelsey Grammer in Macbeth.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
First there was Frasier star Kelsey Grammer, bravely treading the Broadway boards this month under the direction of former RSC artistic director Terry Hands in his first all-American Shakespeare assignment. This Macbeth, it seems, will go down as one of the more ignominious disasters of the last few seasons, a 13-performance run that proved for all time that TV actors can do the classics (if blandly) as well as act for two hours without commercial interruption. Neither skill does good Shakespeare make, however, and it showed. This heavily edited Macbeth is scattershot in its cuts, with key plot elements cast aside like so much removable filler. Worse yet, the performances whizz by at such torrential velocities that what little narrative, drama, and poetry survives is trampled upon by the production's relentless eye on the odometer.

There are, to be sure, touches to this Macbeth worth committing to memory: the director's spectacular lighting plot; Diane Venora's onstage scream as Lady Macbeth, in an otherwise bizarre and unfocused performance; the surprisingly near-balletic fight choreography; and the severe, spartan, film noir-ish quality of the production. A stark Macbeth is a dicey choice for a Broadway revival--particularly one starring Kelsey Grammer--since the very nature of the concept leaves the audience no alternative but to focus and focus and focus on the performances. Every every nuance is thus magnified, even to the point of distortion, by the production's deliberate and often frustrating visual vacuum.

All of which brings us to Kelsey Grammer, whose gift for vocal modulations and calisthenics may play as wacky and comedic on TV, but quickly deflate when put on the stage. Grammer's Macbeth proves that TV acting is small--not bad, mind you, just small. But Grammer, a trained stage actor with a Juilliard pedigree, has successfully appeared in two other Bard-on-Broadway productions, including a Christopher Plummer/Glenda Jackson Macbeth in 1985, so it's especially disheartening to see how noticeably TV acting has softened his thespian grit. The basic and requisite emotional connection to the Thane of Cawdor is, simply put, missing from Grammer's performance.

Compare his performance to that of Gabriel Byrne in A Moon for the Misbegotten, for example, and one can neatly argue that not all film and TV actors become so soft and small and stale. Oddly, if you close your eyes and merely listen to Grammer's rumbling, modulated tones, you will hear all of the white-hot flashes of the conflagration that burns inside Macbeth; open your eyes, and the flames are but fleeting wisps of smoke.

Michael Colby Jonesand Julie Thaxter-Gourlayin Macbeth.(Photo by Benjamin Heller)
Michael Colby Jones
and Julie Thaxter-Gourlay
in Macbeth.
(Photo by Benjamin Heller)
Meanwhile, some 150 blocks north of Macbeth is Macbeth, this one a production of the Off-Off Broadway company Gorilla Repertory Theatre. Artistic Director Christopher Carter Sanderson has spent a decade building a reputation as one of the finest directors of outdoor and environmental Shakespeare since Joseph Papp decided that Central Park best befitted the Bard. Set in a patch of land in Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan--a stone's throw from the Cloisters--Sanderson's Macbeth (which is free to the public) never stops moving, with no pause in dialogue between scenes--not even when the action moves, as it often does, from one end of the playing space to the other. This Macbeth is as much an adventure for the spectators as it is for the actors; and in the gloomy dusk and dark of the park, where we all might feel a mite vulnerable, the tragedy of Macbeth can be experienced more deeply, more personally, more instinctually than in any fourth-wall-separated proscenium setting.

As you enter Fort Tryon Park, there is the siren call of a bagpipe--a brilliant, beckoning touch that sets a mood that immediately heightens expectations. Before an arched bridge a few yards from the playing space, Sanderson greets the audience with a quick explanation of the environmental nature of the production. And then, off it goes.

Sanderson's cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Michael Colby Jones' beleagured, self-torturing Thane, Julie Thaxter-Gourlay's luminous yet black-as-pitch Lady Macbeth, and John Walsh's well-made Malcolm. Though it clocks in at a cool 90 minutes, the virtue of this Macbeth is that not a word of the text has been removed (although some lines have been re-assigned). Sanderson has directed his actors to hew to the poetry and rhythm locked inside the Bard's iambic flurry; yet, unlike the Broadway Macbeth, emotional truth gives no quarter to the warp speed of each performance. Headaches do befall these players--they must fret over jumbo jets flying overhead while doing their strutting and fretting--but even when their voices are momentarily drowned out, their concentration never flags. This is key: Sanderson and his cast know that an audience, when properly hooked, will follow a play and its players anywhere.

In a sense, Macbeth and Macbeth contribute everything and nothing to the once-simmering, now-fading, moratorium debate. Those who feel that more Shakespeare inevitably leads to lesser Shakespeare will find fresh fodder in Broadway's latest flop. But those who maintain that a stellar imagination--not star-power--is what rejuvenates the work of any oft-produced dramatist, Shakespeare included, will find their lodestar due north of midtown. Personally, I'll go for imagination every time. Come to think of it, perhaps the real tragedy occurs when imagination is absent from the stage, not when plays and playwrights are arbitrarily put to sleep.