Photos by Steve Gunther

Actor Stephen Dillane was feeling a certain ennui. He’d
performed in London’s Royal National Theatre, on Broadway; he’d turned down
the role of Macbeth for what he’s described as a point-of-view problem in an
unworkable play. Two-thirds of Macbeth, he told the L.A. Times
recently, is represented through the eyes of the title character, and then its
focus drifts.

Dillane is at least half correct. Much of Act IV (of five acts)
is devoted to those who have seen their families murdered by Macbeth and his
henchman. Even if Macbeth isn’t center-stage for a few scenes, surely his victims
are aspects of his conscience, just as, in King Lear, the treachery of
the King’s daughters, and their partners-in-crime, is surely rolling around
the old man’s head in scenes where King Lear is absent from the stage. So what,
exactly, is Dillane’s problem with the play’s point of view? That Macbeth goes
AWOL for most of Act IV? So does King Lear in his play, also in Act IV. Just
because a character isn’t there doesn’t mean he isn’t there. It could
be argued that, despite the occasional absence of the protagonist, every Shakespearean
tragedy is really a one-man show.

In his solo rendition of Macbeth, Dillane and director
Travis Preston have seized this idea by the horns and made it literal in order
to correct a point-of-view problem that may not even exist. The exercise is
a bit like replacing your car’s transmission because, whenever you shift gears,
change falls out of your pocket. Are you really any richer after the trans job?

For reasons presumably having as much to do with his personal
malaise as with Elizabethan literature, Dillane discussed the narrative “problem”
of Macbeth with Preston, who had already imagined the play as a one-man
show; Preston discussed it with Robert Blacker who was then running the Sundance
Theater Labs. In the backwoods of Utah, the actor and director gave Macbeth
(A Modern Ecstasy
) — their Macbeth-as-solo-performance — a trial
run. After Sundance, the pair continued to work on the project at CalArts in
Valencia. The result of this experiment is now onstage at Disney Hall’s REDCAT
Theater in a world premiere, presented by CalArts’ Center for New Theater, where
Preston serves as artistic director.

The good news is that, in a magnificent, carefully modulated performance,
beautifully staged by Preston and accompanied by three musicians, Dillane appears
to have worked through his boredom with the art of acting. But whether or not
Shakespeare’s play has also benefited is an open question.

Dillane appears barefoot in a silver-gray suit and maroon
shirt on a wide stage that’s a pit of dark sand twinkling with golden nuggets
under Benoît Beauchamp’s elemental lighting. Set designer Christopher
Barreca places six plain screens in a row to provide a backdrop. When the lights
blast in from one side, or the top, the actor’s shadow dances behind him in
sundry contortions. This spartan anti-theatrical theatricality, with its slowly
moving washes of white light on hues of gray — reflecting, I guess, the play’s
rolling emotional clouds — is a bit Peter Sellars–ish and a bit Peter Stein–ish,
custom designed for Europe’s theater festival circuit.

Talk about commanding the stage (the sand, actually), Dillane
doesn’t move even an eyelid until the gesture is motivated from some recess
within his bones. Taking his time, he opens the play by slowly raising an arm
to sniff it, somewhat disgustedly. “What bloody man is that?” he asks
— the first line, Duncan’s line, from Scene 2. (Scene 1 has been jettisoned.)
As Dillane flits between and among characters with a cavalier ease that’s nonetheless
split-second precise, so begins a gradual crescendo of energy and pace. Flipping
into Macduff, the voice instantly drops half an octave, its very timbre suddenly
resonating quiet thunder. Dillane’s hands go slightly limp as Lady Macbeth softly
spits out her monstrous plots. He brushes through the Weird Sisters with a swiveling
hand gesture, sprinting through “The hurly-burly’s done when the battle’s
lost or won” — suggesting that, of course, we all already know about the
hurly-burly, no point dwelling there. Malcolm stutters every time he approaches
any word that begins with an “M,” while Macbeth sounds a bit like
a shoe salesman from Hackney, tortured by his horrible wife and the insanity
of his own vaulting ambition. With its lightning-quick demands, the performance
is a probing and therefore richer version of the Reduced Shakespeare Company
farces which fly through the entire canon in an hour or so. Dillane and Preston
have found a perfect blend of emotional investment and ironic retraction, of
excavating and dusting, until the play’s rancid soul is lifted from the mire
and exposed in those glaring lights.

Every syllable sparkles with a clarity of purpose that’s essentially
musical, a quality reinforced by the sparing use of Vinny Golia’s original score,
performed live. Mostly, it provides a rueful accompaniment to Dillane’s performance.
(Golia plays a contrabass flute, which looks like a flute that’s ingested so
many steroids that it now resembles a giant’s large intestine. Sometimes he
steps away from the monster to play bass clarinet. Jeremy Davis assists on an
electric guitar and “pedal effects,” while the drum set — including
a Gambian kutiro drum, timpani and gongs — is manned by Harris Eisenstadt.)

A variation on the lugubrious tone comes with the Porter “knock,
knock, knock”-ing with a message to a drumbeat as Dillane thrusts his groin
to the rhythm, and the band swirls into a slightly dissonant jazz riff.

Despite the synopsis in the program, if you give two hoots
about comprehending the story, you’d be well-served to re-acquaint yourself
with Macbeth before arriving at the REDCAT. Though there are no other
Macbeths running in the city, Ionesco’s spin on the play, Macbett,
performs concurrently at West Hollywood’s Globe Playhouse. (Go to
for a feature on that production.) Though the Dillane/Preston version of the
play is a mere edit rather than a reconstruction (a couple of scenes excised,
plus internal cuts), the reference points commonly used to differentiate characters
— new faces, voices, a variety of costumes, even reactions — are blurred if
not eviscerated. And it is, after all, the characters who tell the story, which
the audience receives largely in the spaces between them. When all the characters
come through one sorcerer, the only space that really matters is the one between
the actor and the audience, and the effect is that of a conjuring. This glorifies
the actor and his capacity for magic-making — a transcendence exemplified by
the likes of Ruth Draper and Lily Tomlin and Danny Hoch in their solo shows.

This performance, however, isn’t about channeling a few folks
from the ether in order to generate some humor and poignancy. This is Macbeth,
isn’t it? So what exactly is gained from the changing of its transmission? The
play becomes a poem. It’s no longer so much about characters and action as about
voices and emotional cauldrons. It’s no longer so much a story with a plot as
a vortex of feelings about treacherous lust for power. Dillane and Preston have
rarefied the tragedy from an ostentatious drama of primal impulses to a piece
of music that might be called “The Macbeth Variations.” They’ve transformed
the play into a meditation on the play.

As meditations go, it’s certainly a visceral one, and absolutely
enchanting, but I’m not at all convinced it’s an improvement on the original.
Watching Macduff’s horror when realizing that his family has been killed and
watching Macbeth’s contrapuntally blithe response to the death of his queen
are both revelations you can also get from a full production. Here, we get the
banquet scene without the clashing of dishes or characters. Thanks, but I’ll
take the clamor. This is a Macbeth sketched in charcoal; Shakespeare
painted in oils.

REDCAT, DISNEY HALL, Second and Hope streets, downtown | Through December 12
| (213) 237-2800

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