Alan Cumming is back on Broadway doing a limited run of his tour-de-force almost-one-man Macbeth, and it is a must-see. Set in a psychiatric ward, Cumming plays a deeply disturbed man who impersonates almost every character in the Shakespeare classic, occasionally leaving clues as to who this poor patient is, why he is recounting this story, and what has led him to become so tortured.
Typically when I go into a Shakespearean play it takes me a few minutes for my ears to get accustomed to the diaalect, much like hearing a foreign language or accent and re-adjusting your listening habits. At first you found yourself doing a similar sort of thing in deciphering the various characters Cumming plays. That is, until you start noticing how he holds himself differently for each character, takes on different affectations, and that these subtler differences perfectly bridge the line between Cumming playing multiple characters and playing one madman who embodies each of the characters in the story. It is nothing short of amazing, and when you join the rest of the audience for a standing ovation afterwards it is because of a truly spectacular performance, not because you liked the guy in The Good Wife.
I would recommend reacquainting yourself with the storyline and characters first if you're not too familiar with Macbeth, as this production adds a full layer on top of Shakespeare's text. Myself, I only had two small complaints with the show:
Complaint # 1. Towards the end, when Cumming is playing Lady Macbeth in the "out, out damn spot" scene, the lines where others describe Lady Macbeth's madness become the two asylum workers' commentary on the madness of Cumming's patient. I'm all for changed readings and meanings in Shakespeare's language, but since the lines were originally referring to Lady Macbeth, they instead continue to mis-comment on Cumming's male patient as a "she". If I presume that this particular patient's diagnosis includes Disassociative Personality Disorder--and that is a reading that may not be intended--it seems like this could be solved so simply by making the first instance of "she" more emphasized, almost in air quotes, as if referring to a side of the patient's personality.
Complaint # 2. Alan Cumming didn't get nominated for best actor? Wtf.
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- There currently are some problems based on it being in previews, and I don't know why this is surprising to people. Sound problems, pacing... some people's performances will get better and gel over time. I don't know why this is news to people who aren't struggling to find things to write about.
- This is a major re-imagining of Into the Woods, much like one might do with Shakespeare. The whole thing takes place on a very awesome multi-tiered treehouse set, and the narrator here is a little boy. There's something about the execution of the little boy's story at the end of Act 2 that I feel still needs polishing up, however it's a great new take on it. Yet...
- The treehouse set doesn't work so well at the Delacorte's semi-circle thrust stage. You have a giant half-circle on the bottom, and then at the very back of the stage are all these levels. That means that every scene takes place on a relatively-plain stage, or pretty far away from the audience. Move this show to something like The Booth, where Next to Normal also had a multi-tiered set right up to the lip of the stage, and you'd be a bit more successful. Except for that...
- The visual design complicates an already complex show. The original and revival had an opening that established Cinderella/Jack/Baker&Wife via three houses, storybooks, whatnot. Which means that even though the opening number is a 15-minute extravaganza where every single character is introduced, it's generally been fine, because you can easily keep track of the three stories you're supposed to keep track of. However in this production, since so much was "suggested", the "focused" story would keep moving downstage-center and there was a lot of scrambling around. At the end of Act 1 a friend (who'd never seen the show before) said that he thought Into the Woods had one too many stories to keep track of. And for the first time, I felt the same way. It didn't help that...
- They also made the costumes very "suggested". Nobody looks like their fairytale (or Disney) counterparts. Little Red, for example, had a bike helmet for her "hood" and a red leather jacket for her "cape". In theory I liked this a lot, more with some characters than the others. But in reality, it adds another level to something that already had quite enough levels. You start with Fairy tales. Then you add Lapine and Sondheim's modification on the characters' personalities. Then the "twists" in act 2. And on top of that you add yet another visual costume twist. I thought the abstractness was actually more appropriate for Act 2 (but at Act 1's cost).
- Donna Murphy held her own against Bernadette. Amy Adams gets lost in the shuffle, not yet having found a strong take on an admittedly bland character (but I think she may just need more time). Sarah Stiles' Red Riding Hood practically steals Act 1, save for a wonderful return of Chip Zien as the Mysterious Man. Most of the cast was good, they just haven't gelled together yet. I think the director hasn't had the time he should have been allotted, but that's pure speculation. (Edit: I haven't seen the Regent Park video yet)