Friday, July 4, 2003

Hard to defend: The arboretum do come to Battery Rivardi

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Outdoor theater has returned to Greater Portland, but with a puff of smoke rather than the hoped-for bang. The reuse of the area’s coastal forts, little used in times of war, as a theatrical venue is fascinating and full of incredible potential but in the Stage’s performance of Macbeth, the absent guns fired mostly blanks.

No doubt John Jacob Ulrich Rivardi, a coastal-defense engineer for George Washington, would be stunned to see the changes to the 1900-era gun emplacement bearing his name. The gun mount is now a stage, with the surrounding earthen embankments as wings from which characters can majestically enter, and, after exiting, go downslope to be hidden from view.

Instead of being blacked out to avoid being spotted from offshore, the show’s lights shine brightly above a spare set with new features added seamlessly to the concrete. Sadly, either the lights are badly aimed or the actors just plain miss their marks; several scenes’ lighting cuts off heads, feet, and even whole people.

On-stage and off-stage spaces are used cleverly, though "the wings" could use a bit more concealment: A chance glance to one side gave this reviewer a glimpse of a topless Lady Macbeth mid-costume change.

Some details are clearly well thought-out, including techno-urban costumes to fit the concrete and the clever use of gun tie-down points as musical instruments. Others hurt the performance, like the director’s quixotic choice to have several actors continually speak away from the audience.

The weakest element, however, is Seth Rigoletti, playing Macbeth. This was his vision, and should have been his to direct. Instead he has forced his director, Michael Howard, to either criticize the boss (Rigoletti is the Stage’s executive director) or shut up and run a substandard show.

Ironically the energetic young activist/actor does not "get" Macbeth, a power-hungry up-and-coming noble who treacherously elevates himself to the throne, where he becomes a jealous murdering despot.

Instead, Rigoletti plays an effete, frivolous king. His delivery, unlike most of the others’, is too fast and toneless. Shakespeare’s words are difficult for modern ears and minds. They need help from inflection, and get none from the lead actor. Picture Saddam Hussein delivering the following line: "False face doth hide what false heart doth know." Now imagine Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean. The first is Macbeth, the latter, Rigoletti as Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth (Miranda Hope) is far hungrier and greedier, a dark, strong character underlying and supporting her husband’s tyrannical ways. Yet her ardor seems almost comical faced with a mincing Macbeth.

The castle porter (Chris Holt) manages to reclaim some of the bawdy nature of Shakespeare, playing to the audience with a brief appearance that gets no help from the rough and at times wooden attempts of others of the supporting cast.

Not all should be tarred with this brush, however. Tony Correla (as Banquo) and Paul Drinan (as Macduff), along with Hope, are the strongest actors in this performance. Correla should have had the lead, to counter Drinan’s powerful portrayal of the anguished loyal general. Perhaps Denver Whisman (the menacing Seyton) would have been a good choice in a larger role.

And the sisters, as they are termed in this production though normally known as "the witches," are excellent and well used. Played by Deborah O’Connor, Elizabeth Enck, and Reba Short, they are allowed to have their cauldron and ceremonies in dead center stage, in the same place where Macbeth later hosts his friends. This effect is a vast improvement over other productions, which force them to make camp on the side stage.

As the play darkens, so does the sky. And down come the real pestilence: mosquitoes. Things were so bad during the first few shows that now the City of South Portland is spraying during the day. There is also spraying just before the show and at intermission, and tons of bug dope on hand for the asking. (Of course, all of these airborne chemicals may somewhat dim the feeling of a "fresh air" performance.)

From the outset, the production struggles with its bigness. The script (five acts, 28 scenes), the cast (near 30 without extras), the ideas (violence and vengeance cycling bloodily) — all are tough for any theater company, much less a brand-new one trying to make a splash. The Tempest might have been a better starting point, for its context and manageability. The most ringing critique is Shakespeare’s own, of life as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Howard. With Seth Rigoletti, Miranda Hope, Tony Correla, and Paul Drinan. At the Stage at Spring Point, in South Portland, through July 12. Call (207) 828-0128.


Acadia Repertory Theatre has hung out its barn-board sign. Now through July 13 is Proof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn, which looks at a family’s relationships as they dance along the line between madness and genius. The Public Theatre had a great run of it last year, and the play will also be at Lakewood and Portland Stage before 2003 is done.

Generic Theater will continue its explorations of new works with a public reading of The Gardens of Frau Hess, the first play by Milton Frederick Marcus, at Kittery’s Rice Public Library July 8 at 7 p.m. It looks at the relationship between the wife of Nazi honcho Rudolf Hess and her concentration-camp-inmate gardener.