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Roslyn Ruff and Ty Jones in Macbeth
(Photo © Christopher McElroen)
At the start of the Classical Theater of Harlem's Macbeth in its return engagement, not just three witches but a larger coven enter crying for blood. Instantly, they're engaged in an angular dance. Because these 11 arm-waving foot-stompers have been costumed by Kimberly Glennon and choreographed by Tracy Jack to look as if they're executing a grave tribal rite, the audience is immediately propelled far away from the usual setting of what superstitious actors call "the Scottish play." Though the production unfolds in the tranquil Harlem School of the Arts courtyard, Shakespeare's tragedy seems irrevocably to be taking place in steamy African climes.

And it's taking place at a speedier pace than the Bard imagined when he wrote it -- when, some academics claim, finishing touches were applied by other hands. Maybe it's the play's reputation as not entirely the dramatist's work that has led director Alfred Preisser to trim the story of Macbeth's precipitous rise and demise to bare essentials. Even with the added witches' activity, this intermissionless version clocks in at just about 90 minutes. And, yes, Macbeth enthusiasts may miss some of the excised interludes; they may even pine inconsolably for the axed porter's appearance and the comic relief he brings with him. But in some ways, the swift, uninterrupted action lends the play the impact of a Mike Tyson punch. (Doesn't Tyson boast tribal markings himself these days?)

As a result of Preisser's treatment, the play -- in which Shakespeare anticipates Jacobean revenge tragedy -- consists of one murder following swiftly on the heels of another. It often seems to be one decapitated head dripping blood after another, just as the witches declare when the first of them utters the kick-off demand, "Blood, we'll have blood!" In what feels like no time at all, Macbeth (Ty Jones) hears the witches predict his rise to Thane of Cawdor and then to the throne. He succumbs to the goading of Lady Macbeth (Roslyn Ruff) and enacts his plot to reach that promised throne by having Duncan (Arthur French) stabbed in his bed. He offs Banquo for possibly siring throne usurpers and gets rid of Macduff's wife and kids for similar reasons. Macbeth himself is finally polished off at Dunsinane for vaulting ambition.

Although economical with Shakespeare's poetry and prose, director Preisser is lavish with production ideas. Not only do the witches regularly get het up, sometimes they appear on rooftops high above the audiences' heads to shriek their sinister announcements. They are also the initial bearers of the Birnam Wood branches that eventually signal the start of Macbeth's Dunsinane unraveling. Expertly aided by fight director Teel James Glenn, Preisser stages entirely convincing mano-a-mano battles wherein the actors truly look as if they're wasting each other. In an earlier scene, Lady Macbeth presses her hesitant husband into regicide by repeatedly walloping him in the chest -- and he wallops back. It's a case of husband battering provoking wife battering that could be a first among thousands of Macbeth interpretations.

As Macbeth and his Lady, Ty Jones and Roslyn Ruff don't stint on aggression, nor do they shy away from sexual aggression. When Macbeth returns home as a conquering warrior, their greeting is hotly sexy: He lifts her up and she wraps her legs around him. At first, Ruff -- lissome and lithe in costumer Glennon's sinuous gowns -- is a wife who has as much of the milk of human kindness as she accuses her hubby of containing. But her transformation to king-killer is smooth and strong; the smiles with which she greets Duncan are a beautiful display of hypocrisy. And her sleepwalking is quietly terrifying.

Jones is a powerful-looking Macbeth, quick to act yet troubled when contemplating the consequences of knee-jerk reaction. Declaiming his speeches with conviction, the actor only falters when Macbeth hears of Lady Macbeth's demise and starts ruminating about "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." Perhaps Jones can't quite reconcile the volatile man he's been playing with the philosopher he suddenly becomes? Wait a second. Jones does falter deliberately during his final scenes, when he seems to be having the sort of epileptic seizures that plague Othello. This is one Preisser appropriation/interpolation that may not be totally advisable.

Ty Jones and the Witches in Macbeth
(Photo © Christopher McElroen)
The test of any Macduff is his reaction to the loss of his family. Royce Johnson passes with flying colors; he lays on grief with the same force that he lays on might when Macbeth foolishly and famously exhorts, "Lay on, Macduff." Arthur French is a benevolent Duncan, commanding and venerable; he's just as beatific when playing the doctor concerned for Lady Macbeth's mental well-being. As Banquo, Sekou Campbell is forthright. And then there are those tireless witches, one of whom is choreographer Tracy Jack. (My guess is she's the one wearing the skeleton suit.) Someone must have said to each of the dancers, "You go, girl," because go is just what they do. These prophetic ladies swirl and whoop at the drop of a tribal-drum downbeat.

No one is credited with the Macbeth set, although the original Harlem Center for the Arts architect designed a multi-level garden with interesting ramps and fountains that certainly lend themselves to a theater endeavor. Director Preisser has a cauldron, a rod from which curtains hang, and a cracked mirror at the ready. He also has on tap Matt Kraus's sound pattern, heavy with thunder, and he's got eerie, insistent music directed by Kelvyn Bell. Oh, and a hearty thanks to the person who sculpted the bodiless heads. They're doozies.

Though it took the advent of Sigmund Freud to point attention to the multifarious Freudian aspects of Shakespeare's work, they were always there waiting to be codified. For anyone aware of 20th-century psychoanalytic revelations, Macbeth is about the deleterious effects of guilt: Macbeth predicts he'll never sleep through the night again and Lady Macbeth can't rid herself of those damned spots. The play is also about the power of suggestion: Macbeth implodes when he realizes that Macduff was not "of woman born," that revelation confirming the witches' final forecast.

One Freudian interpretation of Macbeth could be that the witches are Macbeth's inner demons prodding him on to self-destruction, not that Preisser seems to be exploring this possibility. What he does explore in his whammo production is the power of theatrical suggestion. It's a successful exploration that has brought the Classical Theater of Harlem much attention and deservedly continues to do so.

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