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Polarity      From the May/June 2005 Issue of Twilight Tales: The Online Magazine:


by Bryan A. Bushemi, Managing Editor

The Polarity Ensemble Theatre calls their inaugural production Absolute Macbeth, but perhaps “distilled Macbeth” would be even more fitting. Arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, this classic gets a nicely surprising twist from Artistic Director Richard Engling, one of the driving forces behind PET. Engling’s astute direction focuses not only on the blood and violence of the play’s script—the potent Sturm und Drang that are hallmarks of the Bard’s theatrical epic—but also the political and ritual aspects built into the piece. For Engling, Absolute Macbeth is about the purgation of tyranny, an exorcism in a symbolic sense of what’s going wrong in this country currently, where democracy is corrupted by wealth and the media, and both major parties selling out in order to get elected and to hold onto (or regain) preeminence and power.

The three Wyrd sisters, the witches, play a much larger role in this production than in others I have seen. Their primal dancing and animal-pelt-masked presence wove throughout the performance—with the witches using masks on sticks in the style of classical Greek plays—in such a way that they appeared not only to observe the action and goings-on, but to also assume the aspect of puppet-mistresses subtly guiding the characters from both within and without the scenes. Adding to the ritual aspect of the witches’ influential omnipresence was skilled, propulsive drumming that served to both drive and unify the storytelling like a living heartbeat pushing along the sanguine essence of this tale of violence, betrayal, and tragedy. It’s no surprise that Engling, a skilled musician as well as director and writer, also hosts one of Twilight Tales’ own reading series specials, Drums Around the Fire, wherein poetry is the course of the evening along with a hearty side of drumming and musical accompaniment.

Absolute Macbeth played to a full house of approximately 60 rapt patrons who packed Chicago’s Breadline Theatre for the premičre showing. The tall, slim, yet distinguished Engling welcomed the audience at the beginning of the performance in animated fashion and a clarion voice attesting to his own theatrical acting background, then stepped aside as the play began dramatically.

To a background of the nearly ever-present, yet never intrusive drumming, the witches swirled into the play-space amidst a fog of incense smoke for their well-known opening scene, to be followed by six actors in shroud-like hoods intoning a funereal prayer and bearing aloft Macbeth, played by actor Brent Rivera. I found that an unusual, but highly effective, directorial choice and it certainly set the tone for the production’s unique interpretation of a classic tale.

The production used the Breadline’s small, Spartan playroom in interesting fashion, choosing to leave it mostly unadorned save for an extensive drum setup at the back of the room atop the low, multi-leveled platform that spanned the width of the room. The pale walls and floor served as a blank canvas upon which the actors splashed the intensely concentrated color of their performances. The casting aside of the usual swordplay and European atmosphere usually infusing exhibitions of this play complimented the choice of austerity in set design. Instead, a distinctly Asian flavor was apparent not only in the stylized, Samurai-esque, padded armor worn by the actors in fight scenes, but also in the martial arts and stick-and-staff fighting (choreographed by David Yondorf) that replaced the usual hack-and-slash stage combat. Engling’s decision to include the Indian dirge “Kali Ma,” sung compellingly by the witches and shrouded “pallbearer” actors, following the deaths of both Banquo (Steven Marzolf) and Macbeth only furthered this feel in potent, graceful fashion. Indeed, I found that to be one of the play’s highlights.

The real treat—and beating heart—of Absolute Macbeth were the individual performances by the actors themselves. While all turned in well-honed renditions of their roles, several in particular stood out admirably. Charley Jordan, in the oft-unappreciated role of Ross, provided stalwart solidity for the madness and violence of the other players to anchor upon. The hovering presence of the witches (Abigail Trabue, Patricia Austin, and Victoria Gilbert) gave an eerie, eldritch feel throughout the entire play. Mason Hill, playing the roles of the Captain (also known as the Sergeant) and the First Murderer, did an excellent job in both, alternately demonstrative and subtle as was required.

Steven Marzolf’s sympathetic and human Banquo was made particularly potent by the lanky actor’s expressive facial acting and physical embodiment of the doomed, noble general. Ann Keen, who will be directing PET’s next show, Antigone, gave a passionate, vibrant performance as the scheming Lady Macbeth that did great justice to the role without falling into the oft-repeated mistake of overacting or chewing the scenery. Keen’s work is one of the highlights of Absolute Macbeth.

In the role of Macduff, Bobby Zaman, a veteran of numerous plays in the Chicago theatre scene, also turned in a bravura rendering. His portrayal of Macduff’s initial stiff nobility, as though uncomfortable with things un-warrior-like, was the pitch-perfect setup to the crucial scene where Macduff learns of the murder of his family, whereupon Zaman displayed fiery anguish as he railed with potent passion for vengeance against the offending Macbeth.

And what of Macbeth? Brent Rivera’s intense visage, volcanic, multi-textured delivery, and dynamic physicality were perfect for the doomed, dastardly tyrant. He began strongly and absolutely shone as the play progressed throughout its bloody, tumultuous length. Even amid a slew of fine acting, it was, quite simply, the performance of the evening. As a director, Richard Engling made an apt and admirable choice for the lead role around which the action revolved.

Absolute Macbeth’s unusual staging, daring interpretations, and compelling musical accompaniment make it a play well worth catching. It’s a classic realized in such a way that it is not only riveting for die-hard appreciators of the Bard’s work, but also accessible to more casual audiences. It’s one of those small-venue shows that are the hidden treasures of Chicago’s extensive theatre scene.

Absolute Macbeth opened April 29 and ran through May 22, 2005 at the Breadline Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Avenue in Chicago.

Polarity Ensemble Theatre is a member of the League of Chicago Theatres.

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