Doomed Couples

You know theater has entered its Halloween season when Macbett, Eugene Ionesco’s late-career take on the Scottish play, opens in black light with a horror-movie score, and as Shakespeare’s Highland hellhound is wordlessly welcomed into existence by only two weird sisters who have emerged from a trapdoor. This eerie prologue, in which Macbett, lifelessly seated on a throne, appears more like the dead Christ in a Deposition painting than the vigorous Thane of Glamis, suggests the territory we’re to cover tonight — Dark Ages realpolitik dampened by the mists of magic and superstition.

Ionesco’s 1972 play is rarely produced professionally (UCLA mounted a technologically elaborate version three years ago) and is not considered one of his more important works. Still, Il Dolce Theater Company and Spirit of Sarajevo are to be complimented for staging this effort at the Globe Playhouse. Director Neno Pervan, editing down Charles Marowitz’s translation of the original French, explores the comedy and pretense Ionesco found in Shakespeare’s solemn characters, while sometimes reverently quoting from the Bard’s original text. In this story, both Macbett (Zoran Radanovich) and his comrade in arms, Banco (Julius Noflin), are made mad with visions of power upon hearing the witches’ prophecies. In fact, everyone involved is either after power or buffoonishly trying to hold on to it. King Duncan (Pervan), seen here as a cowardly bully dressed in a shiny, lime-green Teddy Boy outfit (or is it a zoot suit?), is an obnoxious boor who’s constantly shoving the queen off his throne.

Photo by Milena Pervan

Which leads us to one of Ionesco’s additions to the script -— Lady Duncan (Pamela Clay). She is a cunning, conniving bitch who marries Glamis to become Lady Macbett. Our potential confusion doesn’t matter since the two women meld into the same malignant spirit goading Macbett to murder his benefactor and, later, Banco. To Ionesco, Macbett’s murder of his king overshadows everything; Lady M’s death, Birnan wood, the concluding swordplay are all afterthoughts to the regicidal theme.

In Macbeth’s brutality, we can discern a cleaving apart of Shakespeare’s more enlightened world, as though in the fossil record of pre-Norman Britain stirs a dream of government that serves a common good, as opposed to mere blood sport. This notion runs elsewhere in popular cultures — Eisenstein’s film Aleksandr Nevsky opens on a brooding landscape whose inhabitants seem nearly primordial, yet ends with Nevsky’s appeal to justice and progress. However, in Macbett, the Romanian-born Ionesco, looking back in time past the refinement of constitutions and parliaments, is fascinated with the primitive urges that still lie at the heart of virtually all modern conflicts. Pervan, attuned to this, presents a kingdom uneasily lit with flickering candles and governed by a belief in witches. In a sense, he combines Macbeth with Ceausescu, and Scotland with Transylvania, drawing out of the mad forest of European villainy a narcotic faith in selfish violence.

These themes have a track record: Ron Magid’s pulpily political history Dracula Tyrannus played at this same venue in 1988, and indeed when in Bram Stoker’s Dracula the Count dismisses modern Continental treaties as "these days of dishonorable peace," he may well be looking nostalgically at Macbeth’s Scotland and Nevsky’s bloodied Russia. The Globe, with its two-tiered set, balcony and Tudor windows, lends itself to demagogic nightmares. None of this is to suggest that Macbett is a gruesome meditation on power politics — if anything, it’s more of a Rocky Horror Show meets Ubu Roi, complete with Ionescoan touches: A grizzled man (Alexander Veadov) sells lemonade from his wheelchair, a little boy (Andrej Pervan) with a butterfly net searches for Macbett. And, for pure nuttiness, Duncan is murdered on Animal Healing Day, an annual holiday on which the king cures the local livestock and pets of their ailments. (A significant change from Ionesco’s original scene.)

Director Pervan gets some good performances from his cast, notably Radanovich and Clay, and his production benefits from Slavko Pervan’s spartan set that, nevertheless, places a guillotine behind Duncan’s chair (talk about your throne of blood), while Mladen Milicevic’s cheesy synth-goth score recalls Euro-horror films of the 1970s. In the end, this is a story about a man who murders another for his coat and crown, while forgetting the woman who made his ascent possible. After Macbett meets death, his corpse is carried and caressed by women to the throne with its awaiting blade — perhaps that is the absurdest touch of all.

You have to hand it to David T. Chantler: As a writer, the man certainly knows how to build expectations — and to puncture them. He throws all the right ingredients into his play A Word With Orlando (exotic locale, dysfunctional marriage, puppet metaphors), only to squander them in a ponderous and nearly unintelligible evening. New Yorkers Steven and Elaine Maddox are apartment hunting in Sicily (has Manhattan gotten that expensive?), but decide to buy a villa instead. Chantler is a bit cagey about the couple’s motivations — something about Steven (Nat Christian) having sold "his company" and Elaine (Molly Weber) needing a place to write.

As the couple sets up housekeeping, the entire neighborhood seems to move in with them. There’s the realtor, a roofer, a gardener and his wife, a hotelier, an egg lady, a shop owner and the next-door neighbor — an old British expatriate named Miles (Jacob Witkin) whose housewarming gift is a puppet of Orlando Furioso, the legendary medieval knight. Miles is an avuncular encourager given to calling Steven "old boy" every other line and lamenting his lover Perceval’s death in a mountain-climbing incident. We quickly surmise something is wrong with this picture, however. Elaine plays the buoyant, American signora whom the locals adore, but moody Steven is a stick-in-the-mud fumbler who must ask the roofer (Charley Rossman) to show him how to operate his new tape player.

Worse, Elaine cannot get her husband to display any kind of affection toward her. (Really worse, he talks to the puppet a lot.) Instead, Steven robotically mumbles that outward emotion and expressions of love just aren’t in his DNA. How this will all play out isn’t in question, since Orlando is told in flashback and opens with Steven preparing to sell the villa after living there for two years — alone. The problem with the story that follows is that there isn’t one. Instead, for nearly 130 minutes Chantler presents seven very similar scenes in which half the town invariably reassembles itself in the Maddoxes’ living room and argues about where the new couch should go.

Eventually Carla (Roberta Orlandi), a local shopkeeper whom Elaine befriends, shows up and suddenly there’s focus — and a noticeable temperature rise in the theater. As played by Orlandi, Carla is the devil in a blue dress, which, in Act 2, promisingly turns red. Yet nothing comes of the sultry Carla’s flirtatious moves around Steven. Either Mr. Maddox is extremely virtuous or more seriously asocial than even he realizes.

There are certainly questions raised during the evening about Steven’s lack of ardor (gay? impotent? Asperger’s syndrome?) and the deeper reasons behind old Miles’ recurring lamentations about Perceval. But questions by themselves don’t make a mystery, especially when the author seems to willfully throw away opportunities to draw us into the Maddoxes’ world (why did they ever marry in the first place?), and when some improbable resolutions surface at play’s end.

Director Judy Rose doesn’t help Orlando’s credibility much, either. Some of her "Sicilians" speak in a mamma mia! vaudeville impersonation of Italian English and there are gaps of dead air between Steven and Elaine when their dialogues should snap and overlap. While Weber’s character is genuinely likable, Christian’s monotone reading of Steven is tenuous at best and, on opening night, he had not yet settled into his lines. During the critical housewarming scene, canned guitar music inexplicably vies with conversations and, even more puzzling, Danny Truxaw’s villa set has a pile of stone steps obstructing a living-room archway — suggesting that either the Maddoxes are expecting suicide bombers or director Rose wants her actors to take their time with entrances. Either way, Orlando’s obstacles add up to a lot of downtime in the theater.

MACBETT | By EUGENE IONESCO | Il Dolce Theater Company at the GLOBE PLAYHOUSE, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood | Through December 12 | (310) 458-3312

A WORD WITH ORLANDO | By DAVID T. CHANTLER | At the ODYSSEY THEATER, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through December 19 | (310) 477-2055


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