Review: Tlingit Shakespeare

Dressing 'Macbeth' in borrowed robes

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2004

The precise chronology of William Shakespeare's plays is unknown, but "Macbeth" was probably the last-written of his four tragedies. Like "King Lear," it is a stormy drama of poor decisions, greed, terror and murder.

"Macbeth" is nicknamed "the Scottish play," so Orson Welles dressed his characters in tartans in 1948. Most productions strive to recreate the minimalist staging of the 16th century, with few props, although the 1996 video, starring Jason Connery, mimics 11th-century Scotland and travels to actual battlefields, castles and caverns.

Following in the footsteps of its 2001 Inupiat Eskimo whaling version of "Moby Dick," Perseverance Theatre now stages a Tlingit version of "Macbeth." Director Anita Maynard-Losh has capably coached her all-Native cast, using to excellent advantage two original Tlingit songs by George Holly and muscular choreography by Gene Tagaban.

In Shakespeare's day, language was all. What went in at the ear was crucial; what entered at the eye, inconsequential. That aside, does "Macbeth" benefit by being dressed in borrowed robes? Does the Tlingit version elicit the "revelation" of Perseverance's mission statement? Yes and no.

On the plus side of the ledger, raven's croaking the entrance of the doomed Duncan and similar croak-ings throughout the tragedy take on a special resonance in Southeast Alaska, where both traditional Raven legends and lively, vocal ravens abound. The phrase "his sentinel, the wolf" breathes anew.

What seemed a reference to Southeast's winter weather got a hearty laugh at Saturday's performance, when the porter remarked, "This place is too cold for hell."

A definite high point of Maynard-Losh's adaptation is the bloody banquet of Act 3. The ghost of Banquo initially appears in a spruce root hat and diaphanous cape. Macbeth is alarmed. After Macbeth and his lady try to calm their guests, Raven appears and challenges Macbeth to a duel in dance. In Elizabethan tradition, a dance is a symbol of harmony, and dancing seems to lull Macbeth into letting down his guard. He believes he has again gotten away with murder - until Raven opens his transformation mask to reveal the pale visage of Banquo. The dance tickles everyone's fancy, but is, in the end, horrific for the protagonist.

Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is a play of darkness and light contrasted, storm and shadow, fiends and friends, foul/bloody versus fair/promising. Robert Davis' Tlingit-inspired sets brilliantly illustrate these contrasts, especially in the use of the traditional colors of red and black. Good use of spotlights (as through smoke holes in plank dwellings) and mists compliment the sets.

On the negative side of the ledger, it is disconcerting to see Lady Macbeth reading Macbeth's letter about his recent promotion as a document in petroglyph-like markings. Petroglyphs could not possibly have expressed the high-flown language of the letter.

Furthermore, terms such as "spurs," "limbeck," "wassail," "posset," "bladed corn," "palaces and pyramids" - generally unremarkable in a British setting - become sudden distractions in a prehistoric Alaskan setting. The same goes for "scorpions" and "snakes," which do not thrive here.

Some modifications work part of the time, but not all the time. For example, dressing the witches as Kooshdaa kaas (supernatural, shape-shifting land otters, who lure man to his doom) is a workable concept. And having them become the murderers of Macduff's wife and children adds a fillip. When they don wolf headdresses as the murderers of Banquo, it also works. In fact, it's a wonderful moment when Macbeth stands between them and caresses them as if they were large pets.

But it does not work when one of the witches doubles as Lady Macduff. Seeing a witch in a mask only makes one suspect Lady Macduff is guilty of an unknown crime.

Many of the actors are wooden in both face and body. But that is not as troublesome as seeing some struggle with the music of the piece. Playing Lady Macbeth in a 1982 production, Piper Laurie zipped through her speeches in just this way. Admittedly, the language of "Macbeth" is more compressed, headlong and violent than that of "Hamlet." However, some of the cast, like Ishmael Hope as Malcolm, manage to avoid rushing their lines and keep a steady gait. This is especially evident in Act 4, Scene III where Hope's speeches contrast with those of Wesley Roberts' Macduff.

At performances, Perseverance is distributing a survey asking if theatergoers would like the company to "offer more productions that incorporate Alaska Native culture." The survey notes that Perseverance recently obtained a grant from the Wallace Foundation to expand participation by Alaska Natives in the Theatre and to encourage efforts to explore Alaska Native culture through the Theatre's productions. It will be interesting to see what the survey results are.

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