To quote Macduff, there are "welcome and unwelcome things" in the production of Macbeth being staged in Forest Park by the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis. On the welcome side, Christopher Pickart's spare scenic design is wonderfully evocative. The set depicts a Scottish castle that is out of joint; it might be sinking into quicksand. Or is it not really a castle at all? Are all these weirdly angular lines intended to project the twisted mind of a killer who cannot cope with the evil inherent in his own ambition?
In the opening scene, in a striking image straight out of King Arthur, the three witches (who soon will inform Macbeth that he is destined to be king) thrust a dagger into a stone. The witches establish the evening's eerie, discombobulating tone -- a mood whose eccentricity is reaffirmed in Act 2 when those same witches are revealed as errant children. Nothing is to be trusted in this Macbeth: not the prophecies of beckoning satyrs, not even the ground beneath your feet.
The problems begin when warrior-hero Macbeth (Rob Krakovski) arrives onstage behaving like a jaunty schoolboy. OK, that's not a fatal flaw; a great role should be open even to juvenile interpretation. But at some point the actor must buckle down and make fundamental choices: Is Macbeth the victim of his own vaulting ambition, or is he merely a pawn of fate? And how does the actor convey courage and weakness at the same time?
In this outing, Krakovski doesn't make any choices at all. He offers pretty much a straight reading, perhaps as Errol Flynn might have read the role, and with just about that much nuance. All the memorable lines are clearly spoken (which, for the Shakespeare Festival, is an important step forward). But where is the ambition, the fear, the shame? This is tantamount to asking: Where is Macbeth? When a viewer learns more about the protagonist's state of mind from the set design than from the actor playing the role, something is amiss.
By the end, the once-promising evening has lost its personality. A Macbeth without a clearly delineated Macbeth might just as easily pass for Richard III. And here's a note of unintended irony: In a cast of generally competent actors, the only two who stand out are veterans of that other local Shakespeare theater. Jerome Russo finds flesh and blood in Scottish nobleman Ross, and Wm Daniel File makes a menacing cutthroat.
Obviously a good deal of toil and trouble has gone into this Macbeth. In many respects it's the worthiest of the Shakespeare Festival's three offerings to date -- though that's faint praise at best. But until the festival's producers find directors and actors who can make an audience thrill to the resonance of a phrase such as "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow," these Forest Park forays will remain so much sound and fury, signifying very little indeed.