Theater review: Austin Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” solid, if hobbled

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Witches - Hannah Rose Barfoot, Crystal Bird Caviel, Jessica Hughes Austin Shakespeare's Macbeth Photo by Bret Brookshire

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)

A warm spring evening of Shakespeare in the park calls to mind some of the bard’s lighter fare, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing.

This spring, however, Austin Shakespeare brings us one of the heaviest plays in the canon, with a production of Macbeth at the Zilker Hillside Theatre, presented in coordination with the City of Austin.

Macbeth is a timeless tale of ambition, revenge, bloody murder, and, of course, witches, and this production highlights that timelessness through a military theme highlighted by costumes, props, and sound design that recreate imagery of classic and historical warfare. Through these choices, we see the titular villain/anti-hero as a man undone by his own ambition and monstrous self-doubt, a timeless theme that resonates across martial conflicts throughout human history.

The conflict within Macbeth is made crystal clear through a powerful performance of the role by Austin theater icon Marc Pouhé, who manages to make the character at turns sympathetic and frightening. Director Ann Ciccolella’s vision of the play puts a spotlight on the tyrannical nature of Macbeth’s reign as king, and Pouhé keeps that in mind while still allowing the audience to feel sympathy for the bloody king.

Marc Pouhé and Helen Merino. Austin Shakespeare's Macbeth Photo by Bret Brookshire

Marc Pouhé and Helen Merino. Austin Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Photo by Bret Brookshire

Macbeth most comes alive, though, when Pouhé is paired with Helen Merino as Lady Macbeth. Their complex relationship, built on a foundation of mutually reinforcing love for one another and cold, calculating ruthlessness for all others, is delightfully explored through the interplay of these two potent performers.

Unfortunately, this production of Macbeth is perhaps most hobbled by its location. The Zilker Hillside Theatre is notoriously hard to mic properly, and so a good portion of the dialogue in this language-rich play gets lost in technical glitches. Similarly, the more intimate moments of soliloquy, or of an exchange between two or three characters, can get swallowed up in the vastness of the space. Even the large crowd scenes become somewhat muddled, given the varying perspective audience members on the hillside will be viewing the show from.

Much of this, though, is countered by gorgeous, moody lighting from Patrick W. Anthony that plays with the natural light of the sunset and then the darkness of the evening, as well as by character-revealing costuming from Benjamin Taylor Ridgway.

Ultimately, Austin Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a solid (if initially slow-moving) production of the classic tragedy, bolstered by powerful lead performances and the gorgeous setting of a spring evening in Zilker Park.

“Macbeth” continues through May 29.

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