Monday, September 29, 2008

“Fabulous Mac Beth finale of Shakespeare-on-Hudson”

By John Paul Keener
For Hudson Valley Newspapers

Great theater strikes again in the Columbia-Greene area with the production and performance of Mac Beth by the "Shakespeare-on-Hudson" company at Athens under the direction of the company's founder, Owen Lipstein

More than 20 years ago, Okay Hall III founded the successful Summer Theater, "Lexington Conservatory Theater," which in recent years became the resident theater at our State Capitol under the name, Capitol Rep.

On the evidence of the current production of Mac Beth, the Shakespeare-on-Hudson company is a cultural treasure for the twin counties and the entire region. The outdoor theater built into the side of a hill like a Greek amphitheater, overlooks the serene beauty of the Hudson River and has the advantage of superb acoustics.

Director Lipstein is updating the time frame of the play to the 1929 Depression and 1932 period of Hitler and Mussolini chaos, a daring innovation that really works.

Shakespeare is universal and transcends time. Like Mozart in music, the Bard of Avon becomes contemporary in every generation. L.C. Smith's classic book, "On Reading Shakespeare," comes from 1933, the time of the play's current setting. Smith said, "Shakespeare made up his language as he went along — crashing through the forest of words like a thunderbolt!"

The cast of Mac Beth did just that, with superb diction, telling the story with stunning élan. The actors had the words and actions of their parts unselfconsciously in their bones. They projected their characters with sweep and crescendo until "Imam Wood came to Dennison" and Mac-Duff, who "from his mother's womb was untimely ripped," kills Mac Beth.

Brian Tumbaugh scored a triumph as Mac Beth. He achieved a full-blooded characterization by a combination of nimble fluidity of acting. voicing his part with rich sonority and varied vocal color. Tumbaugh recreated Mac Beth with an originality unlike any of his predecessors within memory.
Charlotte Northeast as Lady Mac Beth matched her husband line for line. Northeast is almost a look-alike of the late Maria Callas. She brings a raucous acid bite to her portrayal, the way the opera star did playing Lady Mac Beth in the Verdi Opera.

The entire cast from the marvelously malevolent Witches, the virtuoso Banquo of Jason Guy, the searing McDuff of John Lewis, the comedic brilliance of James Engel's Porter, the swaggering Duncan of Leonard Gibbs, down to the imposing presence of old Heccat played by Lesley Anne Majzlin, evidenced an ensemble spirit essential for great theater.

The lighting and musical effects were just right and the sets of Yura Adams created a mood appropriate to the 1930s.

It seems a shame to see this grand production disappear from the community. The high schools on both sides of the river and our community college would gain more from a single performance of this Mac Beth than an entire semester would give them.

Perhaps our educators could secure a grant so that Shakespeare-on-the-Hudson productions could become a teaching adjunct for our young people?

The 2002 season promises an even greater challenge with Shakespeare's “simply” Hamlet

John Paul Keener, freelance critic and writer since 1968, often writes under the name Brook Street.

Shakespeare on the Hudson battles the elements

By John Mason
Hudson Valley Newspapers

It's an unlikely place to see Shakespeare - on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. But it's the place to see some of the most faithful and original productions of the Avon bard going in this part of the world.

And despite climate change and the wrath of Thy, Shakespeare on the Hudson is here for the long haul, according to its founder Owen Lipstein. He converted the theater to not-for-profit status, so he can seek financial assistance, and wants to add a school. And he recently bought the venerable restaurant, bar and B&B Stewart House, on the waterfront, which he plans to open Sept. 1.

He hopes people will go back and forth between the restaurant and the theater.

But until that time, the company's production of "Macbeth" is getting raves from its audiences. After watching a performance, Arthur Matera, the prominent costumer from Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, came at Lipstein, pointing his finger and saying, "Do you know what you did?" Lipstein backed off, sure he was in for some heavy criticism. But Matera called the production "truly great."

"I've seen countless productions of 'Macbeth' in my life, all over the world - it's my favorite play," Matera said later, "but the one I saw at Shakespeare on the Hudson this season was far and away the best of them. Emotionally I found myself reacting anew to lines I'd heard a hundred times before. It is not only that the cast. and Brian Turnbaugh in particular as Macbeth, are superb, it is that Lipstein conveyed and communicated the play's most profound meanings in a tour de force of imagination, style and daring. Thank you. Director Lipstein. Your 'Macbeth' has brought me to "the top of my life."

Now through the end of August, "Macbeth" is playing Thursdays through Sundays at 8p.m. The setting is Depression-era, post-flapper Montgomery, Ala.

According to Director Lipstein, "It was a time when ill omen lurked throughout the world. It was a time of the purges of Stalin and the rise of Hitler. Many people in those days believed that evil was destined to overcome good - soon, and everywhere. That gloomy period matches perfectly the atmosphere Shakespeare created in his arresting and shocking play.

"From my point of view," he said, "the people that carry the day are not Malcolm and his friends, but the witches. Macbeth was their work. He did what they wanted him to do." So far, this has been a hard summer for the thespians, with about 70 percent of the performances rained out, Lipstein said. Next year he plans to add a tent covering.

"I'm a grown man," he said. "I don't think I should cry anymore."

A former magazine entrepreneur who has been editor-in-chief of "Psychology Today," "Mother Earth News," and "Spy" and founded "American Health," Lipstein moved to Athens in 1997 and shortly after decided to start a Shakespearean theater.

"I was sitting here a few years ago," he said, "and I thought about Shakespeare pre- the building of the Globe Theater. Shakespeare built his own theater by a river - why couldn't I? I went and told several friends who told me I was crazy, so I proceeded in haste. Seeking approval or counsel in beginnings is not something I encourage people to do."

He decided to build the theater on an incline on his Catskill property slipping down to the Hudson and forming a natural amphitheater.

That year, an Albany acting troupe performed "Twelfth Night" for six nights on a rustic stage by the river. Veteran director Greenleaf joined forces with Lipslein the following year, the stage, seating and grounds were improved, and the Albany troupe performed "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The following year, 1999, Lipstein and Greenleaf not only, improved the sound and lighting systems, but they also decided to find their own independent actors and stage the plays themselves.

Lipstein directed "The Tempest" and Greenleaf "A Comedy of Errors." That was also the first year they put the plays in more modern settings.

"Much Ado About Nothing." which played this summer through July, offered an entertaining variant on the setting by taking it out of Italy and placing it in Messina, Texas, in 1885. But it stuck to the original text surprisingly well. Most of the cast made the drawls or Spanish accents seem natural to the play's effects and meanings.

In particular, John Arthur Lewis made Benedick's character seem to be made for a bragging, tall-tale-telling, woman-avoiding, grass-chewing Texas Ranger. Brian Turnbaugh did an excellent job making Don Pedro both sympathetic and gullible, and James Engel's Dogberry was very funny in his spoof of authority without knowledge.

Sarah Dandridge's Beatrice was sly, spunky and spirited, but her lack of any accent was puzzling. Some of the Spanish accents worked better than others, and the disparity was a little distracting. The great comic scenes of the play, such as the verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick and the scene in which Benedick eavesdrops on his three friends as they plant the seed of Beatrice's love for him in his brain, were hilarious.

Directed by John Greenleaf, the play revealed a troupe willing to take some chances with setting and delivery in order to reveal the story in a new light, but who remained faithful to Shakespeare's words and worked remarkably well as an ensemble to bring them to life. Next year. Lipstein and company are considering doing "Henry V," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and, for a change of pace, "Camelot."

"This is what I do now." Lipstein said. "This is about the Hudson River and how beautiful it is, how extraordinarily lucky we are to live here."