- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

The most clever moment in Folger Theatre's "Macbeth" is in the first scene, when the witches gather. Instead of casting spells, they are counting ballots by holding them up to the light, just as in the Florida recounts last year.
Director Joe Banno chose to set "the Scottish play" (as superstitious theater folks call it) in circa 1960 Louisiana, an apt decision. When referring to Louisiana's government, writers invariably have called it "colorful," a euphemism for "corrupt, but in a charming way."
King Duncan (Tom Quinn) thus becomes an elected politician, perhaps the governor it's difficult to tell, because the names and titles are unchanged from the original text. (Perhaps "King Duncan" also is an oblique reference to Louisiana Gov. Huey "Kingfish" Long, who served briefly in the U.S. Senate and was assassinated in 1935.) Macbeth (Michael Tolaydo) is Duncan's lieutenant, and is disappointed when Duncan names his son as heir.
Since Mr. Banno conceived this staging, however, two events have undercut his vision. First, two independent studies did not determine that President Bush lost the election. The other was the terrorist attack last month. Suddenly, a bloodless, lawyer-dominated struggle over the presidency doesn't seem so terribly important.
The cast Mr. Banno assembled is as solid as one might expect from the Folger. Although the lesser parts are not as well-drawn as in Shakespeare's other great tragedies, the supporting characters are represented ably here. Michael Russotto plays Banquo as a slightly naive Episcopal minister. Andrew Ross Wynn shows his dramatic range as a nobleman, a murderer and an earthy Cajun cook.
Two of the biggest standouts are Scot McKenzie, as Duncan's heir, Malcolm, and John Lescault as Macduff. With his creepy, blue-eyed intensity, Mr. McKenzie is unnervingly good as the young sybarite who inherits Scotland through untimely death. Mr. Lescault comes into his own near the end of the play, when he receives the news that his family was brutally murdered, and he takes up arms against Macbeth.
Lucy Newman-Williams' Lady Macbeth is not stellar, but quite solid. Her part is the most difficult in the play modern audiences are always prepared to laugh at bathos if they detect it, and raving madness and suicidal guilt are prime occasions for bathos. She solicits evil deeds in her harmless-looking pink clothes and masks her thoughts until they burst out and overwhelm her psyche. Her final end is astonishing if not pitiable.
Which brings us to Macbeth himself. When he is translated from 11th-century Scotland to 20th-century America, he must become a democrat. Mr. Tolaydo's Macbeth is every inch a democrat, right down to how he puts his hands in his pockets while delivering a soliloquy. He is not noble in body or spirit, nor does he aspire to be; he merely wishes to exercise power over others.
His performance is true to the choice of settings, but it shows that the setting has lowered the stakes of the play. In the text, Macbeth is introduced as he returns from war. In this production, he hasn't been slaughtering other human beings, but gathering votes for his boss. In a medieval monarchy, slaying the king meant slaying the government and destroying an image of God's reign in heaven. To kill a legislator, even a governor, in the American context is a crime against society but not nearly as subversive or meaningful.
Mr. Tolaydo is in fine form as he descends into despair and nihilism, his body drained of emotion. His mannerisms, such as when he fingers his wife's beaded necklace like a rosary, are particularly inspired.
Mr. Banno's interpretation of "Macbeth" is commendable in many ways and undeniably well-executed. It is irretrievably limited, though, by its circumstances. Even the dullest spectator must admit that concluding a play with a good sword fight is more grand than a "Reservoir Dogs"-style shootout.

WHAT: "Macbeth"
WHERE: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. selected Tuesdays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

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