Even before the play begins its hurly-burly descent into chaos, the Grandel Theatre stage is littered with enough bleached human skulls to warrant a dozen productions of Hamlet. But this is not Hamlet, nor are we in frigid Denmark. This is Macbeth, relocated from its native Scotland to the killing sands of Sudan, an arid wasteland beset by scorpions and blistering desert drums. The gaping gashes on these castle walls betoken a world that weeps and bleeds from dusty death.
The Saint Louis Black Repertory Company set a challenge for itself with its first mainstage Shakespeare production in the troupe's twenty-eight-year history. Then it hired former St. Louisan Fontaine Syer to direct. In the 1970s and '80s, Syer's Theatre Project Company was a spawning ground for many who are still active in local theater. So her return to town has been an occasion for happy reminiscence.
Now the question becomes: Was Syer the right match for Macbeth? The answer: Yes. She has directed a production of such intelligence and imagination that even its shortcomings are easy to excuse.
From first scene to last, Syer's influence is palpable. Consider, for instance, Macbeth's entrance. As Shakespeare wrote this tale of ambition run amok, Macbeth does not enter until midway through Scene Three, long after we've already met a half-dozen supporting characters. Syer doesn't wait for Scene Three. In the opening scene with the three witches, the moment they mention Macbeth's name he magically appears on the battlement. There he is, the title character, established in our minds ahead of everyone else. This is savvy staging -- as is the through-line she creates for the play's many ghosts. Syer knows when to make effective use of the ghosts, and when to omit them. She also concludes the evening with a surprise that is both eerie and true. Thanks to prudent trimming, the playing time is just under two hours (excluding intermission).
David Alan Anderson brings weight, substance and a full-blooded character to Macbeth. This is no mere reading of the role. Anderson is by turns confident, fearful, confused and craven. At the outset his Macbeth is a soldier whose "black and deep desires" are smoldering just under the surface; by play's end his Macbeth is a king who learns that the price of premeditated murder is death of the spirit.
The very fact that Lady Macbeth has no name (in Hamlet, Gertrude isn't Lady Claudius) makes one wonder if Shakespeare didn't intend her as Macbeth's alter ego. That notion is given added validity here by having Macbeth and Lady M wear essentially the same African garb, created by Marie Anne Chiment, who also designed the evocative unit set. But the vulpine Elizabeth Van Dyke is a soulful Lady Macbeth, poignantly in love even as she succumbs to madness.
Whit Reichert is a crowd pleaser as the Porter, but John Contini is not quite the charismatic King Duncan. In a pivotal role that requires the serene majesty of a Nelson Mandela, we get papa George Bush. Several featured roles are enacted by core members of the Black Rep. Though proficient in backyard realism, some of these actors have yet to master Shakespeare's cadences. Surely the clarity will improve as the weeks pass.
Of course, one wonders why certain decisions were made. Although Macbeth lives in a tortured world where murky night devours day and "light thickens," there's no sense of that with this underutilized lighting. But perhaps Syer's most mystifying choice was to use Sudan as a backdrop rather than an environment. Here's just one of many examples of the locale's inconsistency: It's strangely jarring when actors with scimitars suddenly say, "I'll to Ireland." In for a penny, in for a pound. Wouldn't the evening be more involving if those trying to elude Macbeth's bloody reach were to seek refuge in Zaire or Libya?
But fie on inconsistencies. This Macbeth has momentum and drive and coherence, for which Fontaine Syer deserves full credit. Even those of us newcomers who haven't missed her absence should welcome her return.