Mind Full of Scorpions: Bare Bones Shakespeare’s MACBETH

Forgetting a line on stage during a performance constitutes an actor’s nightmare. Anyone who has trod the boards for any length of time has had it happen, “gone up” on lines unexpectedly. Usually, after a split second that feels eternal, the actor recovers, or another player covers for them or improvises a clue line that helps hit the reset button. But what happens when THE lead of a major play, THE catalyst of that show, THE raison d’etre of that show’s existence, continued success and frequent mounting, doesn’t just go up on an occasional line but blanks and calls “line” to a prompter 56 times during a performance? As a critic and theatre advocate, what am I supposed to say about that?

Bare Bones Shakespeare's Gender-reversed MACBETH. Rachael Dawson s Macbeth, Brandon Whitlock as Lady Macbeth

Bare Bones Shakespeare’s Gender-reversed MACBETH. Rachael Dawson s Macbeth, Brandon Whitlock as Lady Macbeth. PHOTO: Vickie Nelson

This past Friday night, October 23, I attended Bare Bones Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth (often referred to as “The Scottish Play”) at Core Theatre’s venue in Richardson TX. Running October 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25, it’s billed as a company-directed, reverse-gender production. I was curious to see how these two conceptual approaches would affect the work and add to my perceptions of it. I am a bonafide Shakespeare fan. The Scottish Play hovers at the top of my “favorites” list. Earlier in October I attended the well-executed, inventive, visually provocative production staged at SMU under the direction of Equity actor Dr. Michael Connolly. I attended Shakespeare Dallas’ reading of the play the week before. I never tire of The Scottish Play or its conflicted, anguished characters. Friday night I found my center front row seat in the intimate Core Theatre with anticipation and curiosity.

Cast as the play’s male lead, Macbeth, by Bare Bones’ creator and company manager, Julia Nelson, Rachael Dawson exhibits a commanding style and presence, fit to potentially pull off a role written for and usually acted by, a strong, masculine, dramatically fearless man, an actor adept at Shakespeare. If only Dawson knew the character’s lines, she might have made a case for role reversal. But she didn’t know them.

By the seventh or eighth time she halted in Act One and called “line” to the prompter seated visibly stage right, I found myself pulling back from the play and wondering what the problem was. I started making a mark on my program sheet every time she called “line”, embarrassed for her and unable to continue watching her with any degree of comfort. She stumbled and struggled on through both acts, painfully, fairly isolated from the rest of the cast. My tally of her “line” calls at play’s finale came to 56 requests.

This is a first, for me, as a critic. I can’t let it go. If a company charges for a production, it owes it to the play, the playwright (even a long dead one) and the audience to prepare its actors to perform. This performance was not a preview. I understand weeks of preparation went into producing this with a plan to perform Macbeth at school settings. Rachael Dawson needs to learn her lines to do any justice to the role of Macbeth and to carry the play properly forward. Nothing anyone else on stage did could make up for this serious shortcoming by the play’s lead. The play is about Macbeth and his voyage through murder and madness to death. There is no play if the lead doesn’t know the lines to drive it forward.

Gender role reversal in The Scottish Play? And “company direction”? I’m not convinced either serves the play. The role of Macbeth is clearly written for a man: acting/ thinking/feeling, as a man. Cast Macbeth with a woman actor, that actor needs to dress and behave as a man, to enliven the character as written. Putting Macbeth in a woman’s black cocktail dress with pearls and elbow length red gloves does nothing to illuminate the challenges or dilemmas the very male-identified character faces, whether the actor knows her lines, or not. Would Rachael Dawson have had so much trouble remembering her lines if she had received direction to focus her performance? She looked tentative, even when she knew the lines. Strong direction might have cured that.

Witches in MACBETH: Mack Hays, Benjamin Bratcher, Robert Dullnig

Witches in MACBETH: Mack Hays, Benjamin Bratcher, Robert Dullnig

I found the three witches that prophesize Macbeth’s fate and their head witch Hecate engaging. Thanks to Mack Hays, Benjamin Bratcher and Robert Dullnig. Playing Lady Macbeth as well as Hecate, Brandon Whitlock brought a palpable dramatic flair to his female characterizations, in spite of his beard and masculine demeanor and attire.

This is the oddest review I have ever written. It was a very odd production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Beware a mind full of scorpions.

Contact www.barebonesshakespeare.com for information on future productions.

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