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Chichester Festival Theatre

at BAM Harvey Theater

The Scottish play has often been reset in modern times, but I've never seen a more effective placement of Shakespeare's tale of supernatural destiny and vaunting ambition than Rupert Goold's pre–Iron Curtain staging. Currently playing at BAM's artfully crumbling Harvey Theater after hit runs at Chichester Festival Theatre and in London, this Macbeth is played out in the sort of utilitarian room that could be either a hospital ward or a torture chamber, courtesy of Anthony Ward's grisly set and Eastern European–style military costumes and Howard Harrison's spooky lighting, particularly effective when shining through the grille of an industrial elevator.

The mood of butchery is established immediately as an injured sergeant delivers his message of Macbeth's bravery to Duncan while being operated on by three mysterious nurses. It comes as no surprise when these ominous figures pull off their surgical masks, inject him with a lethal solution, and recite the witches' lines. Thus Goold introduces us to a world full of treachery, where those meant to do you good are actually your worst enemies.

Even those familiar with the text will find themselves clutching their companion's arm as if they were attending a brand-new Hollywood horror film. The hags' spells are accompanied by bizarre video images and shattering sound effects (created by Lorna Heavey and Adam Cork, respectively), and Goold gives us many stunningly scary interpretations of familiar sequences. The banquet scene, in which Banquo's ghost appears only to Macbeth, becomes a Pinteresque dinner party with layers of unspoken menace beneath the formalities. Goold plays it twice, before and after intermission, to stunning effect.

The witches' coven is a terrifying exorcism as the weird sisters call forth their prophecies from the corpses of soldiers slain in the earlier war. The scenes in the Macbeths' castle preceding the killing of Duncan take place in a kitchen where numerous fowls are chopped and dressed for the table, calling to mind Sweeney Todd. There are a few inexplicable directorial choices. Banquo is assassinated on a crowded commuter train, which makes no sense, as he's supposed to be riding his horse. Is he taking the train to the stables? But these lapses are rare in this vital, exciting production.

Patrick Stewart skillfully conveys the murderous thane's journey from loyal subject to treacherous tyrant. He shows the cracks in Macbeth's composure with small gestures and suppressed cries, then undergoes a transformation to superhuman killer when the witches convince him he's invulnerable. He pulls off an amazing triple switch as exhaustion fills his frame and he wearies of being a plaything of the spiritual forces. Kate Fleetwood makes a formidable Lady Macbeth, though she can be a bit obvious in her intensity. If she took the screaming down just a notch, she would be more effective. Michael Feast is a compassionate and heroic Macduff, and Goold gives the character the opportunity to show his humanity by having his family accompany him in the earlier part of the play, rather than having them just show up to be slaughtered toward the end. Scott Handy's Malcolm grows from a tender boy to a convincing ruler. Paul Shelley is a noble Duncan and a wary doctor, Tim Treloar a complex Ross, and Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, and Niamh McGrady are easily the creepiest witches to stir a cauldron.

> > > > Reviewed by David Sheward

NEXT TO NORMAL

at Second Stage Theatre

ART

Have you ever loved a person who didn't love him- or herself? It's a humbling, Sisyphean experience, suffered in the self-destructive Next to Normal by a family ravaged and raw from bipolar disorder—and passed on to an audience made to suffer for its own compassion. Like most bipolar sufferers, the musical can follow a disastrous flare-up of insecurities with enough seeming sincerity and gleaming charm to almost seduce you back. Don't let it. Tough love is the better course, lest you find yourself at the end of this overlong, overloud affair again starting to feel something only to have your empathy drowned by a final tidal wave of droningly obvious lyrics and aggressively ugly staging.

Next to Normal is slow out of the gate, sacrificing clarity for the sake of a "traditional" musical opening number. Meeting the gorgeous family and the gorgeous face they put on their problems is inoffensive to be sure, but it sets up the musical as yet another portrait of middle-class dysfunction and so forces the show to relaunch as it reveals the mother's (Alice Ripley) mental illness and to relaunch again as it reveals that the teenage son (Aaron Tveit) we've all somehow seen is actually her mentally aged image of an infant who died 16 years ago.

Why has he nevertheless grown up? How has this lost babe matured into a young man with well-defined abdominals? Next to Normal offers no answers, but it does manage to showcase Tveit in his boxers and wrap him around Ripley, badly blurring the stakes. When she turns away from her family, is she indulging in painful memory or sexual fantasy?

As these images suggest, book writer–lyricist Brian Yorkey's logic-light script is done no favors by the usually sure-handed director Michael Greif. Rent is closing on Broadway in just a few months, so we might all be inclined to forgive its Tony-nominated helmer for some bits of nostalgic fancy. Here, though, again working from a score that aspires to rock, Greif borrows from himself in ways that don't play as homage. In fact, they just don't play. A steel staircase is trotted out center so that Ripley, soldiering through an ungainly, unglamorous role, may do an unfortunate take on "Out Tonight" ("Out of her mind tonight"?). Performers playing suburban mainstays clutch poles and tabletops, emoting and wailing in the iconic pop poses of their East Village forerunners. The worse offender is Tveit, whose obnoxious mop-top-rocker routine is reminiscent of Adam Pascal had he been crossed with Topher Grace (in the looks, not acting, department).

And then there's the movement. Throughout the show, choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) treats mental unfitness as an excuse for physical extravagance. Like most of Next to Normal's failings, the issue comes to a head with Tveit's character, whose unrestrained physicality is a car wreck that you really can turn your head away from.

There are other issues that the show should have had examined by a doctor. Symptoms include a score (by High Fidelity's Tom Kitt) that cranks the volume when its hooks don't take hold; insistent use of profanity without dramatic, comic, or rhythmic payoff; and forced, false parallels between the romantic relationship of the parents and that of their acting-out daughter (the very young, very talented Jennifer Damiano) and her gentle stoner boyfriend (the impressively unirritating Adam Chanler-Berat).

Somehow surviving each and every psychotic event is the family's father, an unrewarded hero—much like the man who plays him, Brian d'Arcy James. His voice equally glorious whether plaintive or powerful, his acting clean and beautiful, James is the only truly lucid thing in a stricken musical still yet to correctly diagnose itself.

Presented by and at Second Stage Theatre,

307 W. 43rd St., NYC.

Feb. 13–March 16. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Thu., Feb. 14; additional performance Sun., Feb. 17, 7 p.m.; evening performances Wed., Feb. 20; Thu., Feb. 21; and Fri., Feb. 22, are at 7 p.m.)

(212) 246-4422 or (800) 766-6048 or www.2st.com.

Casting by Telsey + Company.

Reviewed by Adam R. Perlman

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