Ghosts, Bloodshed and Magic

Circle Playhouse reigns ‘Macbeth.’

By: Stuart Duncan
   A few seasons back the Circle Players of Piscataway decided to grab the theatrical bulls by the horns and stage its first Shakespeare play. The result was tremendous excitement — first from the performers, and then by audiences. Now the group schedules at least one each year. In fact this year there will be two — King Lear is coming in November.
   But, right at the moment, it’s the Scottish play — Macbeth, directed by Rob Pherson — and it’s a dandy. Of course the tragedy has much going for it: It is one of the Bard’s shortest plays (only The Comedy of Errors has fewer lines) and it has plenty of gore, but interestingly almost no oaths and profanities. That was the natural result of a Parliamentary act in 1603 "to restrain the abuses of players." It also includes one of King James’ favorite topics — witchcraft.
   We mentioned the gore — the combination of stage ghosts, bloodshed and magic make the work one of Shakespeare’s most popular. No puns and only one comic scene (the drunken porter scene) but even that is based on the Hell Porter from the mystery plays. The porter guarded the gates of hell.
   Director Pherson has an extraordinary company of 19. Each has fine diction and the "theater-in-the-square" intimacy of the Circle Playhouse adds to the tension. The three witches, beautifully played by Sandra Rudnitzky, Valerie deLeon and Stacey Straczynski, follow the modern trend to ambiguity. They resemble old hags at first, but gradually shed their bizarre masks and reveal themselves to be beautiful sirens. Jon Heron is a credible King Duncan, and Bob Dumpert a sympathetic Banquo, loyal to a fault and blind to his dangers.
   Ultimately the evening rests squarely on John O’Brien as Macbeth and Kari Cooper as his lady. Shakespeare has built some ambiguities into their roles as well, as if not sure at first who will do the actual killing of the King, and then he gives each a conscience so that each is tortured by memories of the event.
   We see O’Brien and Cooper, not only in their moments of angst, but in the quiet moments as well and it is often the latter that break your heart. The play is packed with important soliloquies, but both actors are so clever that often it is well along in the speech before one realizes: "Oh golly, this is one of the familiar ones." The two are mesmerizing and introduce moments of sexual passion as well, so that the actual killing becomes almost an act of climax.
   There are strong performances throughout: John Dowgin plays Macduff with a slightly elevated plane of anger; Jennifer Wewers is charming in her brief scene as Lady Macduff. Phil Bramson misses much of what the porter scene is about, mainly because he doesn’t play the inebriation. But those are very small quibbles in an evening that thoroughly satisfies.
Macbeth continues at Circle Playhouse, 416 Victoria Ave., Piscataway, March 16-17, 8 p.m., March 18, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $12-$15, $11-$14 seniors, $10 students. For information, call (732) 968-7555. On the Web: