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Macbeth: West Side Scotland 

Changes help murder Shakespeare play

No play in the Shakespeare canon gets more jostling around than the fearsome tragedy whose name must not be spoken aloud, "The Scottish Play," better known as Macbeth. During my watch on the Loaf, we've had nocturnal visitations from Kabuki Macbeth, Tiny Ninja Macbeth, Interactive Murder Mystery Macbeth, Macbeth Unplugged, an all-female ChickBeth with a ghost of Janis Joplin as Banquo, outre Macbeths from Moving Poets for Halloween and Actor's Gym with slutty Witches, and, least of all, MacBeth, where one of our local directors was bold enough to mess with the spelling.

For a matinee change of pace, there was a 2008 Met Live in HD broadcast of Verdi's Macbeth, transporting the witchery and butchery to post-World War II Scotland, where the usurping king rode into battle in an army Jeep. So the current Charlotte Shakespeare production, their first at Booth Playhouse, is by no means the most far-out distortion we've seen of the ancient text.

Nor is this version, directed by Elise Wilkinson, the most wrong-headed to hit Charlotte. It simply doesn't have enough conviction behind it to earn that distinction.

We seem to be in some unspecified urban jungle, with grimy walls bestrewn with graffiti, fronted by ugly chain-link fencing. Our Witches Three are homeless hags whose cauldron is a converted oil drum. The ambiance is very much like the rumble site of West Side Story or even the famously impoverished Bowery. If this is Scotland, then it must be Glasgow, because I've seen Edinburgh.

As long as we remain outdoors, there is cogency to the set design by Wilkinson and Meghan Lowther. Costumes by Luci Wilson chime well with a slum that spawns gang wars, including assorted trench coats for King Duncan and the hags, camo for Banquo, and leather for Macbeth. But disaster lurks when we adjourn to Macbeth's castle in Inverness. Only one of the three revolving panels is deployed to suggest the future seat of the Scottish monarchy, no more regal than a window box in Cherryville. And the whole notion of a wood — Birnam or otherwise — figuring in an inner city battle between these folks is merely a jarring reminder of how poorly conceived this modernization truly is.

For those of us familiar with Macbeth, there are some interesting variants on individual characters. I wished I could see more of the homeless hags, particularly the wild-eyed Corlis Hayes and the catatonic Ashli Stepp, though the heavily bewigged Pam Freedy was also effective. Unfortunately, they were conceived by Wilkinson as corporeal seers rather than supernatural doers, so they are uninvolved with the supernatural prodigies at the castle before and after Macbeth murders Duncan.

In his simple greatcoat, Jerry Colbert reminds me of a Jersey mobster as Duncan, sinister and vulgar. This skews the whole ecology of the plot. Compared with the unsavory majesty of Colbert, Christian Casper and Gretchen McGinty as the Macbeths really do strike us more like Tony and Maria, the protagonists of West Side Story, leather or not. McGinty is the more shockingly wholesome when we first meet her, reading the glad tidings from her husband that he has received the title of Thane of Cawdor — and the prophecy that he will wear the crown. Her rapacious "unsex me here" soliloquy couldn't be less fearsome if Mary Tyler Moore spoke it on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Coupled with Lady Van Dyke, Casper is at his best when he's being swayed by his wife — or out consulting with his Witches. In his conniving, his soliloquizing and his reacting to all his personal daggers and demons, all too often I was seeing Casper calculating his actions instead of the calculating, unnerved Macbeth in feverish action. The cold-bloodedness of Casper's portrayal didn't fully strike home until I saw Foster Solomon as Macduff reacting to the murder of his family. At last some real emotion!

Michael Harris was equally lukewarm as Banquo — while he was alive. But his ghostly appearances brought out some of the best work of the night from lighting designer Trista Bremer and the tech team. Sad to say, those same artists seemed to be sleeping at the outset of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, which should glow in candlelight. Fortunately, Colbert returns as the Doctor to observe the spectacle, where we find McGinty's best moments.

Shakespeare's playscript is needlessly cut to a 96-minute playing time, nearly an hour less than normal, and the result often feels rushed and sloppy. A wonderful exception is Alan England's cameo as the Porter, stumbling down the orchestra aisle to answer the knock on the castle door after Duncan's murder. More typical is the butchery of Lowther's fine sound design, abruptly clipped each time it should be faded.

On that score — and most others — the traditional Shakespeare Carolina production of Hamlet at Winthrop outperformed the newfangled Scots at Booth. Jill O'Neill's score was at least as apt, and the people in the soundbooth at Johnson Hall weren't constantly muffing its delivery. In the key matchup of tragic heroes, Jimmy Cartee overachieved as Prince Hamlet, far more affecting in his demise than Casper, while Caryn Crye as the mad Ophelia was so dramatically altered in her final scenes that she was rightly presented as Cartee's co-star in the final bows.

Newcomer Zade Patterson epitomized the polish of this ShakesCar effort each time he appeared as the ghost of King Hamlet. The luminous silver and white costume designed by Rebecca Randolph; lighting by Chris Herring, Charles Holmes and Cartee; and video imagery by David Hensley, projected into a rococo frame overhanging the throne of Denmark, all conspired to augment the Ghost's spookiness.

With all the recent openings in Charlotte, I couldn't get around to Hamlet until its final matinee. ShakesCar promises to be at UpStage, reprising their original take on Frankenstein, during the upcoming Queen City Fringe Festival on the first weekend in October. Meanwhile, their Hamlet and the crowd they drew to it without the boost of a Charlotte review bodes well for their future with the Bard.

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