PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Macbeth A Space to Kill

By Harry Haun
November 22, 2013

Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of Lincoln Center Theater's Macbeth, starring Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff.

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All hail Vivian Beaumont and the theatre named after her! Every crevice and corner of that cavernous stage has been explored and employed to give epic grandeur to Macbeth, Shakespeare's tragedy of an ambitious man killing his way to the top. (Some call it "The Scottish Play," some call it "A Thane's Guide to Love and Murder.")

It's a massive playing area, and it requires a showman director to conquer and use properly. Jack O'Brien, an incredible visualist with a highly advanced sense of theatricality, was turned loose on the space again Nov. 21 — a kind of triumphant return, having helmed three heaping installments of The Coast of Utopia there. He came with an armada of designers committed to keeping eyes popping and dancing.

As befits a spooky, supernatural tale, you can barely see it. It draws heavily from Edward Gorey's limited palette — black and white, with an occasional splash of red, be it a crimson dressing gown or bloody hands or a vase of roses that die as murder happens. Shafts of light penetrating the darkness make their own space. In lieu of fade-outs, lighting designer Japhy Weideman simply flips a switch to jar our perceptions. Our focus is jerked for a scene down front to the back of the stage.

Scott Pask's spare, bleak set uses for its centerpiece a Middle Age mandala with movable parts that rise and lower and all manner of occult signs. The towering walls that appear at various angles around the set have been designed to show off the vastness of the Vivian Beaumont and do dizzying, disorienting juxtapositions.

Very few plays that have played the Beaumont have capitalized on its spectacular playing area. Its last tenant, Ann, was a one-woman show, starring one Holland Taylor. To go from that to a sprawling Macbeth is to run the risk of getting the bends.

O'Brien made the most of the most, not only with Utopia but also with Henry IV. Graciela Daniele did quite well splashing about Marie Christine there, as did George C. Wolfe with A Free Man of Color. But the title-holder has to be the late Gerald Gutierrez, who shoehorned half of Rhode Island into Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

"I love that space, and I honor that space," said director O'Brien when he arrived at the show's after-party. "That is our great theatre canvass, our trampoline of imagination. It goes all the way to Tenth Avenue — and, honey, I go there, too."

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Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff
Photo by Monica Simoes
First-nighters don't usually have such a nice commute. This one was just an easy amble from the Beaumont Theatre across the Lincoln Center courtyard to Avery Fisher Hall, which had turned over its orchestra level and First Tier lobbies for the festivities.

Ethan Hawke, the Macbeth of the evening, arrived with his wife, grinning from ear to ear and still singing the praises of his director. "He guided me right down the rails," he beamed. "I feel so good about the production. Jack wanted to do this play. He had a vision for it. He knows it so well, and he has something he wants to say with it."

The other Macbeth at the theatre was in the audience. James McAvoy won an Olivier nomination in the role earlier this year and just bopped over from Britain to see his wife, Anne-Marie Duff, make her Broadway bow as Lady Macbeth. They opted not to play it together — marriage is hard enough without having to go through that — so he was delighted the role came her way anyway. "It's a part every actress wants to play, and I'm glad she got a chance to take it on," he said. "I thought she was brilliant."

Duff was O'Brien's outside-the-box idea. They had met briefly, years ago, when he caught her Olivier-nominated performance of Saint Joan at the National Theatre.

It's ironic Lady Macbeth did what Saint Joan couldn't — get the actress to Broadway. There was talk early in the millennium of her doing Joan here, "but it was very tricky at the time. Here was a huge production about a religious fundamentalist, and at that point in time in New York, I think people wouldn't have found it that easy to digest, which is a shame. It's such a wonderful part for a woman. Funny, you will get a rash of five Hamlets in a row, but you won't even get two Saint Joans in a decade."

She may just be the best-dressed Lady Macbeth in years, no small thanks to Catherine Zuber's costuming. "The director felt she was a woman who was really into privilege and power so we felt her clothing needed to show someone who lived a life that was filled with image so the image to her character was like that."

To date, Jonny Orsini has yet to do a Broadway show without director O'Brien, who cast him first in The Nance and now as Malcolm in Macbeth — but getting Job Two wasn't as easy as falling off a log, the actor insisted. "When I found out he was going to do Macbeth, I asked him if I could read for Malcolm, and he was like, 'Have you worked on text before?' I said, 'Yes,' but he put me through the wringer a little bit. I had to come in four different times. I had three callbacks. He didn't just say, 'Hey, you want to play Malcolm?' I wasn't really sure about it the whole way through."


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At the party, Orsini was still reeling with excitement over his Shakespearean debut. "This has been — and will absolutely continue to be — the biggest growing experience I've had thus far, and I'm really grateful to have had the chance to do it."

Another O'Brien innovation is casting men as the three witches and having them hover cryptically throughout the show, especially over scenes of wrongdoing and comeuppance. They're played by Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets.

Jennings, who spoke the first line in Patrick Stewart's Macbeth gets the first substantial speech in this (reshuffled) production. "Basically, this is a directorial concept. Jack wanted the witches to be able to take part in other scenes by becoming other characters in the play so they have a lot of control over information."

"I'm having a ball," trilled Glover. "Jack has always been a wonderful director. I've worked with him quite a few times — the first time was back in the '60s in The Selling of the President — so I've known him a while, and he's really at the top of his game."

Gets noted a new addition to the witchcraft — Hecate, a sort of queen of the witches. "She's edited from most productions. In ours, she's played by a fantastic actress, Francesca Faridany. She's more powerful than we are so she gets some of our lines."

Lording over the haggard threesome, looking like Lady Gaga, Faridany is a commanding presence. "The people who move this particular version of this play forward are the witches," she remarked. "In Shakespeare's play, she's just got one speech. The witches seem to be enough usually, and they do the work without her, but Jack has taken that hundreds of steps farther. What's wonderful is that she comes down and sorta demotes the witches and says, 'What the hell have you been doing? You've messed up. We've got to get organized.' Then, she takes over."

By any other name, Hecate might be Ninotchka.

Daniel Sunjata and Brian d'Arcy James
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Nathan Lane was the first to be seated at director O'Brien's table. They did The Nance together last season, and both won awards for it. They may win more when it's telecast in fall 2014. Lane said he's booked even farther than that: The Iceman Cometh, which won him such extraordinary reviews, will be coming to BAM in 2015.

The author of The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane, has moved on to other things, he said, lifting a lofty finger in the direction of The Met. (It seems he has written the dialogue for the new Die Fledermaus.) "Now, for some opera esteem," he said.

A couple of Hawke co-stars showed up for support: Josh Hamilton, one of the Utopians, flew in from New Orleans where he is filming the "American Horror Story" series. Jonathan Marc Sherman, who co-starred with him in Clive between writing gigs, came across town. "I acted in two plays last year so this is the year I'm a playwright," Sherman declared. "I'm working on a musical with Jason Robert Brown and Daisy Prince and a straight play which, right now, is called The Squeaky Wheel."

Another Jonathan — Walker — is finishing up a recurring role on "The Carrie Diaries" so he'll be ready for a Julie Halston rematch in Charles Busch's next play at Primary Stages, The Tribute Artist. (They were unforgettably funny in The Divine Sister.)

Among the classicists on hand for the opening: Zeljko Ivanek, Pulitzer Prize winners Alfred Uhry and Bruce Norris (the latter's latest, Domesticated, is now playing under the Beaumont at the Mitzi Newhouse), Carolyn McCormick (currently co-starring with Peter Scolari and Andrew Keenan-Bolger in Family Furniture, the A.R. Gurney play world-premiering these days at The Flea) and Tyne Daly.

The man in the kilts in the audience was Macbeth's associate production manager, Paul Smittyman — an Englishman, it seems, "but my mother's family is Scottish."