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Intrigue among the urns

Peter Sellars has gone too far. Now he's actively encouraging us to sleep through his productions! (''If you can't sleep in the theater, where can you sleep?'' the program notes say.)

Well, this director's latest twosome, ''Macbeth'' and Samuel Beckett's ''Play'' (playing at the Boston Shakespeare Company through March 24), are not likely to produce a quick snooze, but in many ways they are nightmares. And that's just what he wants.

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For ''Play,'' the ''nightmare'' is one of actors being imprisoned in a long run. Mr. Sellars sees it as ''some tacky long-run West End smash hit - 3,000 years later.'' The three actors, Sandra Shipley, Henrietta Valor, and John Madden Towey, perform this one-act from perches inside large black urns.

This talking-heads approach is what playwright Beckett calls for in ''Play'' - a husband, wife, and mistress each telling his or her view of the triangle. Bizarrely made up, they are lit by small spotlights. Although they speak only in sentence fragments, a fairly complete picture of the situation emerges. And if you miss what's going round the first time, they obligingly run through it again , this time a bit more wearily and run down.

By comparison, ''Macbeth'' is a genuine nightmare. Lit solely by bobbing flashlights held by mobile black-clad actors, this trio (Sandra Shipley, David Zoffoli, Henry Woronicz), playing the complete cast, brings us an 80-minute Japanese Noh version.

It's a dark, murky hell of a play bereft of time, place, or any familiar landmarks. In some ways this works. What better way to show the internal Hades of murderous ambition and remorse than as a nightmare? And the duality of Macbeth's character, than by splitting it between two actors? Zoffoli plays the lustful, ambitious side; and Woronicz, the timid, remorseful side. The play does take place over one long night, with light only breaking in at dawn. The use of flashlights makes the actors look like trapped suspects and heightens the characters' sense of isolation. And the urns, which are used here as well, make wonderful witches' caldrons.

It's a highly imaginative concept. But that's cold comfort when you can't see the actors well, when their words are garbled by reverberating amplification, when characters are switched abruptly, and when you know the play has been severely slashed.

It's painful to sit through. This is esoteric Shakespeare for those who know the play inside and out. For those expecting a traditional Noh play - it's not. For audience members whose last encounter with ''Macbeth'' was in high school, be prepared.

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