Passion Plays

For its seventh season, Redd Tale Theatre Company, in residency at Nicu’s Spoon Theater in Midtown West, has taken on two classics in repertory. Each runs about two hours, with William Shakespeare’s Macbeth a little bit over at 130 minutes and Pierre Carlet de Marivaux’s Triumph of Love a little under at 110 minutes. Seeing two shows in rep allows for interesting contrasts, as sets are used twice, themes reoccur, and many of the actors perform in both plays. While tightly directed by the company’s artistic director Will Le Vasseur, Macbeth and Triumph succeed only intermittently in being completely compelling evenings of theater. There are, however, strong performances in each and some innovative directorial choices in “the Scottish play” in particular. Redd Tale’s “tightly edited version” of Macbeth is the more enjoyable, more engaging of the two. The weird sisters open the play with their supernatural mojo, standing on a black-lit rune resembling the symbol on the cover of the fourth Led Zeppelin album. As the play progresses, the witches retreat to three different corners of the stage where they stand motionless — observing. They also occasionally become minor characters, adding an interesting twist to their manipulation of the action.

But the most important ingredient in Shakespeare’s tragedy of politics and ambition is two lead actors who can inhabit the guile and guilt, might and madness of the characters of Macbeth and his social-climbing wife. While Redd Tale co-artistic director James Stewart, as the doomed regicide, is technically proficient, his performance is unfortunately emotionally deficient. His Macbeth never truly connects to the audience as a man who morphs from an unwilling murderer to a tyrant willing to do anything for the crown. Founding company member Virginia Bartholomew, in contrast, as Lady Macbeth, is like the bloodthirsty star of The Real Housewives of Scotland, egging on her recalcitrant husband and plunging into insanity as her indiscretion gets the best of her. Bartholomew is both devious and delicate, formidable and fragile. Her interpretation of the role is the highlight of both shows.

The remaining characters in Macbeth are fleshed out by actors of varying degrees of skill, with Morgan Auld as Ross/Porter, Brad Lewandowski as Malcolm, and Collin McConnell as Banquo/Menteith faring best with Shakespeare’s poetry. Outfitted in fetching kilts and tartan sashes, the cast moves briskly through this pared down version of the story, which never loses sight of the main narrative thrust and retains most of Shakespeare’s rhythm. It is praiseworthy that Le Vasseur’s cuts seem seamless.

His adaptation of Triumph of Love, however, suffers from an overeager attempt to “throw in a healthy dose of RTTC’s signature sci-fi twist,” according to the company’s press release. While Redd Tale’s previous season’s Maddy: A Modern Day Medea earned acclaim for its audacious reworking of the classic Greek tale, the changes made to Triumph seem like square pegs forced into round holes.

Landing in between Molière and Beaumarchais in the French dramatist timeline, Marivaux wrote some 30 comedies about love, of which Le triomphe de l’amour is the most famous. Working from a new translation by Virginie Maries, Le Vasseur keeps the plot essentially intact. But the play now begins with our cross-dressing heroine Leonide subservient to a sorceress who turns back time so that the disguised princess can bring back her love from an untimely death. It is a device that adds nothing to the charms of the play — and also tacks on an unfortunate and nonsensical ending.

Adaptation aside, this production also suffers from what seems like a concerted attempt at cohesion with its repertory partner, Macbeth. Much like the witches in that play, the cast of Triumph surrounds the stage motionless until their time in the spotlight. But while this blocking makes sense in the context of the previous tragedy, where all eyes are watching, it makes much less sense in this comedy, as the statue-like actors have their eyes closed most of the time. They are neither observers nor manipulators of the story, as the weird sisters are in Macbeth.

In addition, Triumph has the misfortune of having odd costume choices, as everyone but the lead actress is bedecked in grey jersey-cotton togas. Is this meant to be a nod to the Greeks and/or the rationalist views of the holier-than-thou philosopher, Hermocrate, who is one of the main characters of the play? And why is Corine, princess Leonide’s handmaid, dressed in an obviously femininized toga when her character is supposed to be in disguise as a man throughout the play?

Unfortunately, these directorial choices distract from what is overall a well-acted and tightly constructed version of Triumph of Love that shares with Macbeth themes of royal succession, politics, and deception. Founding company member Lynn Kenny is utterly charming as Leonide/Phocion/Aspasie — a true feat since the motives of her character’s deceitfulness are specious to say the least. Brad Lewandowski is also winning as the object of her affection, the young and naïve Agis.

Virginia Bartholomew proves once again that she is a force to be reckoned with in her spot-on performance as the old maid Leontine, seduced by the princess in disguise as a young, beautiful man. Tom Cleary is equally as delightful as the self-righteous thinker Hermocrate, caught off guard by the wiles of Leonide masquerading as the young maiden Aspasie. And James Stewart as the scheming gardener Dimas fares much better in Triumph, in which his Kiwi accent works well with his character instead of against it as in Macbeth. (Stewart hails from New Zealand.)

Redd Tale should be applauded for its courage in doing shows in rep — particularly challenging shows by the likes of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Marivaux — and for attempting new adaptations of classic works. Their motto is “to provide enlightening, entertaining theatrical experiences that contribute to humanity’s next step forward.” Both Macbeth and Triumph of Love can be considered entertaining and both include a number of charismatic and captivating performers. But a little more enlightenment next time around regarding the original source material would be greatly appreciated, too. Macbeth is the more successful of the two, while sadly Triumph does not live up to its title. I do, however, look forward to seeing Redd Tale’s “next step forward.”

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