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The Scottish Play

Rebecca Wisocky and Jere Burns
in The Scottish Play
(Photo © Scott Humbert)
Lee Blessing, whose comedy Fortinbras picked up where Hamlet left off, has returned to the Bard for his latest work, The Scottish Play, now receiving its world premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse. Rather than second-guessing Shakespeare as to what befell the survivors of the tragedy better known as Macbeth, Blessing has opted to explore the history of the curse associated with the play. While he has a lot of fun playing with theatrical traditions and laying on the curses, the play feels unfinished, as if something major is missing -- such as heart.

The action is set at the Northernmost Shakespeare Festival in Bannockburn, Michigan, which over the past 30 years has been dedicated to presenting the full canon of Shakespeare -- everything, that is except Macbeth. Artistic director Billy Neil (Peter Bartlett) has steadfastly refused to tackle the play because of the curse associated with it. He details many of the mishaps that have happened since the first production, during which the actor scheduled to play Lady Macbeth fell ill and died. In one production, Charlton Heston's groin was accidentally set on fire. It was even rumored that Orson Welles' "voodoo" production of the play cast a curse on a critic, who died soon afterwards. But festival founder Alex McConnell (John C. Vennema) feels that he's become the joke of the theatrical world because Northernmost Shakespeare has never done the show, so out goes Billy and in comes star Jack Bonner (Jere Burns) as the new artistic director and director of the season opener -- yep, "The Scottish Play."

Of course, Billy's fears turn out to have been well founded. Soon enough, the festival is gearing up for rehearsals of Macbeth in the middle of a freak May blizzard that has dropped 72 inches of snow on the town in 30 hours. A squirrel has chewed through an electrical wire, killing itself and setting fire to the scene shop and all the scenery. A heat wave then melts the snow, causing flooding and an invasion of frogs in the theater's basement. The actress set to play Lady M., who has a fear of flying, is stuck on the road after various mishaps involving a train, a bus, and an S.U.V. Most of the cast is not only ill but also stranded on rooftops due to the flooding.

Another major problem is Hollywood hunk Path Sanderson (Erik Heger), who has been cast as Macbeth even though he has never set foot on stage. Path refuses to play a bad guy, so he chucks Macbeth and takes on the role of Macduff, rewriting the play to make him the leading character. (Jack goes along with this because Path dangles the promise of a Hollywood career in his face.) When the costumes and props are lost in another accident, the show goes on with the company in togas until a tornado and an earthquake end the madness.

Melia Bensussen directs with plenty of energy, and the plucky actors really throw themselves into the mayhem. Judy Gailen's scenic design, featuring a plethora of trap doors and a falling wall, adds much to the production. But while there are lots of laughs here, some of the jokes go stale very quickly, such as Path's surfer-dude attitude (though Heger struts through the role perfectly). Another joke that's beaten into the floorboards is Jack's young assistant Pewter's (Diane Ruppe) romantic obsession with him. She offers herself repeatedly to Jack and is repeatedly rejected, just as she in turn belittles techie Fred's (Robert L. Devaney) crush on her. The two performers are charming but their one-note characters are not.

Blessing's single touch of genius is having Jack's three ex-wives play the witches, with claws fully extended. These viragos are portrayed to the hilt by three talented women: Susan Knight as Maud, Jack's first wife and the mother of his son, is bitterness personified; Rebecca Wisocky as the elastic-bodied Zita is a quirky mess, whether on or off her meds; and Bridget Regan is Eden, the young nymph who can't help attracting men like flies. Burns provides a solid center as the chaos builds around him, but it is Bartlett who steals the show as Billy. Shakespeare would have loved him.