.Sassy Witches and Duran Duran

A rushed Macbeth, and an irreverent Measure for Measure.

Giving an early start to the usual summer Shakespeare season, two small Berkeley companies are giving the bard modern spins, only to demonstrate anew that in comedy everything works out in the end, while in tragedy it goes all to hell.

Having emerged from its pizza-parlor basement a few years back, Subterranean Shakespeare takes on Macbeth with no set in Live Oak Park’s Berkeley Art Center gallery — the audience sits close on two sides and red-and-black curtains obscure the wings. The modern costumes mostly match the color scheme, with a lot of red ties and black suit vests and slacks.

The main innovation in Jeremy Cole’s staging is that scenes are often interwoven. The last few lines of one scene overlap with the first few lines of the next, which uniformly works to the detriment of the drama. When Macduff is staggering from devastating news while people are talking on the other side of the stage about how Lady Macbeth ain’t been quite right lately, the scenes distract from one another and both lose their impact. The overlaps also make it hard to tell whether, say, the doctor is meant to have overheard Macbeth’s incriminating soliloquy as well as Lady Macbeth’s somnambulistic confession. Even the scene-closing couplets are no longer coupled.

Although the witch scenes are played with the usual cackling and ring-around-the-rosie, the weird sisters are nearly omnipresent in this production, assuming many small roles while still in their witch costumes, smirking behind the backs of other characters. Fate always looms large in Macbeth, but this time the witches don’t just prophesy events but nudge them along at every turn. The unlucky thane of Glamis has a pretty clear case for entrapment.

The principals are well spoken, although Stephanie DeMott becomes hard to understand when her Lady Macbeth is agitated and Lynn-Audrey Tijerina has a jolly jester’s air even when her Banquo seems to be in earnest. Paul Jennings makes an upright, businesslike Macbeth, but his grim demeanor remains impassive during his descent from loyal soldier to treasonous murderer. Only when he becomes king and starts scheming to wipe out all potential opposition does his face begin to move, as if he’s finally in his comfort zone.

Some of the delivery is distracting, such as Edward O’Neill’s limp rightful king Malcolm and Nicholas Crandall’s piratical Murderer, but most of the staging is stiff. One side effect of so much going on at once is that no one thing is terribly interesting.

The split-screen aesthetic is only part of what makes the production feel rushed. The drama doesn’t build so much as whiz past, which leaves you too busy reconstructing what just happened to worry about the terrible things about to occur. There’s no time to become attached or engaged, because the big speeches and emotional turning points have to endure constant interruption from some bit of exposition that belongs elsewhere. Macbeth is already the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but this two-hour production seems in an awful big hurry.

Impact Theatre, in residence in Sub Shakes’ former home at La Val’s Subterranean, tends toward more contemporary fare, but artistic director Melissa Hillman has been directing one Shakespeare play a season since 2003. In Measure for Measure she draws the battle lines clearly before a word is spoken, setting public drunkenness, solicitation, and dancefloor humping (to Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur”) in stark contrast against the stiff military atmosphere of the court, where the duke is temporarily leaving his stand-in Angelo in charge. Soon the nun Isabella finds herself pleading for the life of her brother, condemned for knocking up his girlfriend, to find that Angelo will spare brother Claudio only if Isabella consents to sleep with him.

While the performances are often broad and stronger on high jinks than high stakes, Hillman’s thoroughly modern production keeps the comedy fast-paced without ever becoming confusing.

Marissa Keltie does an excellent shellshocked expression that comes in handy when playing Isabella, who has a lot to be distressed about. Ted Barker captures a CEO’s casual air of command as Duke Vincentio, although he’s not always audible and his hunched posture in disguise is distracting. Cole Alexander Smith has a cadet’s military bearing as autocratic Angelo, and his voice is strong, but the emphasis he puts on sentences often runs contrary to their sense. Jeremy Forbing is over the top as the incorrigible scalawag Lucio, but hits more often than he misses, and Stacz Sadowski threatens to steal the show in the bit part of the drunkard Barnardine.

Though Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s simpler comedies in the sense that all the subplots directly feed the main story, it’s also a notoriously tricky one. The usual comedic ending of everyone getting married is problematic, to say the least, when one of the characters is a nun who has spent the whole play struggling desperately to defend her chastity. Hillman’s capper doesn’t just undermine the ending: It thumbs its nose at the joyful conclusion in no uncertain terms. Subtle as a brick, but it definitely has impact.


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