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Alan Cumming gives a brilliant, often surprising performance in this unusual version of Shakespeare's tragedy at the Lincoln Center Festival.

Alan Cumming in Macbeth
(© Manuel Harlan)
If you're convinced that Alan Cumming will inevitably do brilliantly whatever he chooses to do on -- whether on the legitimate and concert stage or on the big and little screen -- then you won't be surprised how great he is in the virtually one-man Macbeth, now at Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2012. However, that's not to say the 105-minute, intermissionless version of William Shakespeare's tragedy isn't full of multiple surprises, because it is.

The first surprise in this mesmerizing interpretation -- directed feverishly by frequent Cumming collaborator (and 2012 Tony Award winner ) John Tiffany along with Bomb-itty of Errors creator Andy Goldberg -- is that it unfolds in a large institutional-green asylum room designed by Merle Hensel. Within the daunting high walls and among the hospital beds, staircase and porcelain tub, Cumming is presented as a madman whose impulse is to recite Macbeth as the only way to deal with his seething brain.

Tended to by a pair of mostly silent staffers (Ali Craig, Myra McFadyen) and observed on three closed-circuit monitors, the patient compulsively enacts his trimmed edition of the beloved, if fearsome Scottish play, constantly changes his modes of speech, depending on which of the dozen-plus characters he's portraying.

As he does -- frequently pulling off the scrubs in which Hensel has dressed him and sometimes appearing naked as Natasha Chivers lights, Fergus O'Hare's sound and Max Richter's nervous music shift according to his kaleidoscopic moods -- the driven figure hurtles around the room with frightening propulsion and unrelenting despair. He bathes himself. He brings a stuffed doll into play. He washes and wrings out a child's knitted sweater.

Beginning with the outburst "When shall we three meet again" as the hospital attendants leave the patient to his own devices, Cumming finds multiple ways to refresh the Bard's familiar lines. At one point, the lighting throws three shadows of him on the back wall and he becomes the three witches. More often, though, Cumming relies solely on his own resources to vivify Macbeth as he devolves from murderous thane to suspicious and then defeated king, as he inhabits a remorseless and then pathetically remorseful queen.

His reading of the words "signifying nothing" in Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue coming soon after Lady Macbeth's hand-wiping speech provides a theatrical double-whammy. His earlier rendition of the Macbeths plotting their regicide is hotly sexy. He changes acting gears so smoothly that when he's Macduff learning his wife and children have been killed, he's suddenly heartbreaking.

Although some patrons may resist this resetting of the warhorse drama, there's not only a definite method to this brand of madness; it's practically impossible to deny the production's irresistible pull.


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