What I learned. . .

I came away from directing my fourth production of Macbeth convinced that the play really is complete in and off itself. There are many theories that pieces of the play are missing (what about Macduff’s story? Lady Macbeth’s?), but I’m more prone to thinking that played full-out, Macbeth is a piece of whole cloth (tailored, perhaps, to the notoriously short attention span of King James, for whom the play was originally performed). It’s pretty clear that the Hecate scenes, though interesting, provide little more than a kind of scolding of the three weird sisters by their otherworldly patroness (pandering perhaps to Shakespeare’s royal patron’s interest and expertise in witchcraft), and may have been written and inserted by another author, making it that much easier to cut those appearances with a clear conscience, stream-lining the play that much more.

My goals with this production were to take the audience on a clear, swift, and compelling ride, and to try to avoid the inherent trap of the “Monty Python” potential of the play’s final movement/battle sequences. I was aided in this by a scene design (Max Amitin) that provided the opportunity for cinematic fluidity, by David Sterritt and Alec Barbour’s excellent combat choreography, and by the lack of enough actors to inhabit full, armor-laden armies. The result of the latter condition was that our fights were quick and brutal, kept to the story, involved only the essential characters, reduced the amount of people who would enter screaming, exchange a few quick blows and then run across the stage to make a screaming exit, and impelled the action forward. I’ve also learned that as tempting as it is to cut the Macduff-Malcolm section of the English scene, part of the way in which you get audiences to listen to and comprehend that necessary, contrasting respite in the brutality of the play and stepping stone in Malcolm’s return to Scotland, is to make the slaughter of the Macduff family as bloody and grisly as possible. (These deaths, along with the regicides of Duncan and Macbeth originally took place offstage, perhaps with a nod to King James’s abhorrence of bloodshed. By graphically murdering not just Lady Macduff but four innocent children as well in full view of the audience, playgoers are not only shocked into silence, but able to understand the scope of Macbeth’s ruthlessness in an immediate, visceral way. The murders also unequivocally demonstrate Macbeth’s commitment, prompted by his return visit to the heath, to damn the torpedoes and go for broke, no matter the cost, no mater the consequences.)

I had a very game cast, good young designers, and excellent support all around. As a first-time guest at the Hilberry I learned – sometimes the hard way – never to make assumptions about anything. For instance, the theatre’s divvying up of hours on a 10-out-of-12 rehearsal day is different from any other I’ve experienced, and I was unnecessarily caught off guard when my stage manager suddenly called the lunch break an hour ahead of what I was expecting. Had I been more vigilant and paid closer attention to the published daily schedule, I would have reduced the amount of small surprises I experienced during the rehearsal process. Fortunately, it all worked out. The production opened on time and with the kind of confidence that comes from a generous rehearsal process; the reviews were uniformly excellent, and I left Detroit feeling grown in my knowledge of the play – as a piece of literature and as living, breathing theatre. All of that, plus the opportunity to make my directing debut in Detroit, to encounter and engage with the passion and talent of an ensemble of fresh young theatre artists, and to experience the diverse riches of a city in which I’d never spent time was more than gratifying. Could not have asked for more!


Hilberry Theatre

September, 2013

Megan Barbour, Danielle Cochrane

“Although director Paul Barnes’s traditional approach to the baleful ‘Scottish Play’ delivers the expected gruesome villainy, it does so while slyly unpacking the script’s rich duplicity, finding a natural impetus for barbaric behavior that we might not like to accept as comprehensible.

“As the production begins, the assembled company names the play and setting, then executes a swift roll call to familiarize the viewer with titles and basic relationships – a useful tool, especially given that some actors are double and triple cast.  The ensemble then plunges headlong into the tyrannical tale of Macbeth. . .

“Shakespeare’s language here revels in contradiction, and the design follows suit, digging into diametric oppositions.  In contrast to the sophistication one might expect of regal proceedings, the earthy scenic design by Max Amitin embeds primitive stone structures within engulfing forest, and the nearness of the elements is reinforced by costumer Donna Buckley’s found-warmth collage of heavy textiles and skins.  Lighting by Samuel G. Byers established neutral and natural, only to cut through in extreme schemes that expose the characters’ duplicitous psyches.

“Intriguingly, although the text seeks to characterize good acts as ‘natural’ and evil works as ‘unnatural,’ the present production casts its grisly deed in an animalistic light, subtly suggesting that the base response to kill or be killed is not so far removed from human nature as one might hope. (To this end, fight choreographers Alec Barbour and David Sterritt excel at acts of increasing brutality, especially when the undergraduate and child performers jump in with bone-rattling commitment.)

“Barnes’s pacing is similarly binary – here spurred to velocity by the insistent drums of sound designer Heather DeFauw, there languishing in the pause between breaths of Moan, Barbour and Cochrane’s wilding witches take their time communing.  Notably, in a show this long on ominous malevolence and short on levity, Michael Fisher provides an especially vital moment of respite in his lethargic, mischievous turn as the ambling porter.

“The performances, too, look for the natural drivers and reactions to the play’s heinous acts; yet even here, the lead performances are characterized by antithesis.  Boucher plays moment-to-moment as a defensive-skewing Macbeth, taking threats as they come and meeting each discovery with the same wide-eyed inundation.

“Conversely, as the resolute Lady Macbeth, Keris’ premeditation is spellbinding.

Her thoughts dart ever ahead, even as she initially reels with fear at the ease of her deadly cunning.  Through a swift cascade into cold, irreversible conviction, every furtive motive clearly telegraphed to the viewer, hers is the most revealing and gripping arc of the production.

“. . . the work of Barnes and company is noteworthy for its streamlined playing of counterpoints, stringing the viewer smoothly through the polar extremes of its dark and devious tale.  What’s more, by exploring the savagery inherent to humankind, this production attains its own brand of spine-tingling realism, fed by a ruthlessness that feels all too natural.”

     Carolyn Hayes

     Encore Michigan

“Paul Barnes, who packs serious credentials as a Shakespeare director, presents an authentic production of this bleakly beautiful Shakespeare tragedy.  Macbeth is often staged in modern war settings, replete with missile launchers, Kevlar armor and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Ironically, the current Hilberry production may be more accessible precisely because it eschews these vagaries and sticks with the powerful momentum of Shakespeare’s script.

“The witches are real women – scary, unsettling creatures – not metaphors.  When Banquo’s ghost suddenly appears, it’s no mere lighting trick to suggest Macbeth is going mad.  The audience gasps as the gory Banquo stands and extends his slippery red hands to Macbeth in accusation.  The battles are fought by men wielding big swords, spears and daggers and they draw yet more blood.  Because of the evil unleashed by Macbeth and his Lady, many people – including women and children – die violently.  And the play is over only when the villain’s head is set on a pike.

“New-to-Shakespeare patrons may struggle with the Elizabethan verse, but there can be no ambiguity in a severed head set on a pike.  If you haven’t seen this play live – or perhaps if you’ve only seen a modern retelling – take this opportunity to see Macbeth in all its crimson splendor.

“The Hilberry company of gifted graduate students, embellished by undergraduate WSU players, takes to the dark matter, and the iambic pentameter, like old pros.  Resisting the urge to chew the scenery, they still do not skimp on the raw emotions that rattle these characters to the very bone.”

     Patty Nolan

     Detroit TheaterExaminer

“The beautiful set and lighting design manages to be spare and robust – it has the perfect amount of melancholy from the three heads of dead men that morbidly watch over the audience to the effective lighting design, which places us in the midst of Macbeth’s paranoid visions.

“The production was directed by Paul Mason Barnes – a guest director whose national credits include other Shakespeare classics. . .

“Barnes makes The Hilberry production of Macbeth accessible for Shakespearean connoisseurs and new theatre patrons alike through vivid images and coherent speech.

“The beauty of Shakespeare is that despite the change in wardrobe today and the difference in language, his themes still run to the heart of humankind—the elements of who we are.  The Hilberry cast has managed to do that with a production that is engaging and entertaining.”

     Samantha White

     The Oakland Press

“The Hilberry Theatre opened its season with an amazing production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Under the gifted direction of Paul Mason Barnes, the production is one of the best of ‘The Bard's’ productions performed by the company in recent memory.

“Their Macbeth is riveting and mesmerizing, and even though many of the passages and lines are familiar to Shakespeare fans, in the talented hands of the cast the performance commands attention and reminds audiences why we cherish ‘The Bard's’ remarkable plays even 400 years after he wrote them.

“The entire cast contributes to the show's success and powerful impact. The technical elements are stunning as well, from the realistic stage blood to the heart-stopping sword fights. Max Amitin's multi-level scenic design is stunning, enhanced further by Samuel G. Byers' lighting design and Heather DeFauw's sound design.

“Other outstanding achievements include Donna Buckley's costume design, Anthony Karpinski's technical direction and Alec Barbour and David Sterritt's frighteningly effective fight choreography.”

     Sue Suchyta

     Times-Herald Newspapers