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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  A Few Clouds
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THEATER

Broom Street Theater's McBeth brings Shakespeare's king to the corporate world


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Broom Street Theater brings its 40th anniversary season to an end with an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, which artistic director Callen Harty has twisted and turned into McBeth, an allegory of corporate greed. When company man McBeth encounters three witches who deliver their prophecies of his rise up the corporate ladder, he and his power-hungry wife launch a campaign of greed and violence, with tragic results. The decision to frame this classic in a contemporary way makes some sense, particularly given our current economy, Wall Street bailouts and Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

I've complained about what I've perceived as provocative wackiness at BST before (dildos and puppets flying around the stage), but this production is tamer than I anticipated, a fairly restrained and faithful adaptation. There are some quirky BST touches, including a human hookah and henchmen dressed like extras in The Matrix.

But ultimately there are only a few moments where the corporate greed angle is made explicit. In an effective scene early on, for instance, McBeth sends a text message to his wife's iPhone informing her that the witches' first prophecy has come true -- he has been named V.P.. But too often the word chairman or C.E.O. has just been substituted for king. I never thought I'd complain about things not being taken far enough in a BST production, yet here we are.

Some of the best moments Friday night came before the show even started, as the three witches (Kate Boomsam, Melissa Graham and Mayra Rios, completely shrouded in black) interacted with the audience while creeping and crawling around the stage. The actresses approached this with abandon, and there were some genuinely funny and interesting moments. This surprised me, because I usually bristle when actors interact with the audience. Later in the second act, the witches donned giant masks that are also operated as puppets, to spooky effect.

Some of the cast struggled with Shakespeare's dense and rich language, and their unease became more visible when they shared the stage with actors more comfortable tackling the text. You could really tell who had a clear understanding of the text and the acting chops to pull it off. There were times when I couldn't decipher what was being said, for various reasons, everything from mumbling and shouting to lack of conviction.

There are actors who acquit themselves very well. Justin Lawfer plays multiple roles but is best as Duncan, the corporate chairman who is the McBeths' first victim. He has beautiful diction and a confident presence. Alex Cotant as McBeth is stronger in the first act, where he captures his character's growing ambition and discomfort with his violent trajectory. He shares a tense and sexy chemistry with Melissa Graham as his wife. When he says "rough night" after murdering Duncan and then framing and murdering Duncan's men, it rings true. He is less convincing in the second act as he descends into paranoia and mania.

Graham has an aloof coolness reminiscent of Tilda Swinton and ably reveals her character's ruthlessness and drive without overdoing it. Collin Erickson is an intriguing force in several small roles, with his distinctive look and husky voice. I wish he'd been given a larger role.

The fight scene that closes act one is excessive in both volume and violence. I'm glad to report that the ill effects of the performance's insanely loud gunshots have worn off, but on the drive home I thought I would be forever plagued with tinnitus.

The music played in the background is sometimes welcome (Vivaldi and a little Steely Dan), but at some points it competes with the acting, and the pulsating Nine Inch Nails is too much for some of the actors to overcome.

Director Greg Johnson cultivates some compelling performances and employs several interesting visuals, particularly Mrs. McBeth's sleepwalking scene. I imagine that some of the disparity with the actors' abilities will even out over the run of the show. Here's hoping that Broom Street Theater is spared the alleged curse of Shakespeare's Scottish play.

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