By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Sometimes Macbeth is a medieval warrior, sometimes he's a modern tycoon; his "fiend-like queen" is sometimes a brilliant harridan, sometimes a sexy trophy wife. The Macbeths are the ultimate power couple, making House of Cards look like child's play, and Shakespeare's fierce study of ruthless ambition has tempted directors and actors for more than 400 years.
And now this riveting new production of Macbeth at the Arden, directed by Alexander Burns, gives us the masterpiece again.
Ian Merrill Peakes is splendid in the title role: a passionate male presence we watch corroded by a conscience that cannot accommodate his ruthlessness. Peakes' voice carries the necessary classical weight and clarity, and he makes us newly hear familiar words ("surcease/success"), and "Tomorrow" as he makes the famous speech his own.
As Lady Macbeth, Judith Lightfoot Clarke is sufficiently slinky and commanding, although her character never quite took shape, and the actor seems to lose focus as madness overtakes her character. The couple's lusty reunion after Macbeth's triumphant return after battle that earns him the King's favor, is terrific.
When Lady Macbeth is persuading her husband to murder the king and seize the throne, he gets cold feet and asks, "What if we fail?" She replies, "we fail." How that line is inflected gives us her character: arrogant or incredulous or resigned or terrified or.... In the event, Clarke throws her arms wide and says the two word line mockingly, with an implied, "duh" and loaded with all the contempt of a contemporary woman goading her man.
Ben Dibble turns in a surprisingly terrifying Banquo, although both the Macduffs (Terrence MacSweeny and Aime Donna Kelly) are disappointing in those moving, complex roles.
Unfortunately, some of the cast seem to be reciting their lines rather than speaking dialogue, and, worse, in American accents, although there is excellence in the throng as well: Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Ross delivers Renaissance English as though it were his native language.
Burns' direction is heavily inclined toward monologues—characters address us rather than converse—a technique exaggerated by a bare stage without a single prop or stick of furniture, so the actors just stand, but occasionally, awkwardly, sit on the floor. There is a noticable lack of ceremonial gestures, and very little bowing.
Burns uses all available theatrics to create the surreal sense that we are sometimes inside Macbeth's deranged mind, and to this end he has put together a spectacular design team: Brian Sidney Bembridge, the scenic designer, created a black stone circular stage where smoking witches' cauldrons open suddenly. James Sugg's thrilling sound design—music, thunder, drumming—adds greatly to the show's atmosphere, and Solomon Weibard's lighting design is dazzling, especially the huge shadows. Crucial to any production of Macbeth are the battles, and Paul Dennhardt's fight choreography is a knockout. Peakes' death is an amazingly moving, shocking, realistic scene.
The play sure does hold up.
Arden Theatre Co. at 40 N. 2nd St. Through April 19. Tickets $15-50.
Information: 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org