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'Macbeth' Review: Alan Cumming's One-Man Show Is No One-Man Job

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MACBETH ALAN CUMMING
Lincoln Center Festival

"Macbeth" should not be a one-man show. The man, and concept, fueling a new adaptation are both such appealing choices, though, it's enough to convince you that it should. Man: Alan Cumming. Concept: man cycles through multiple personalities in an insane asylum.

As your eyes and ears take in every strand of the stylish, minimalistic set at The Rose Theater -- a clinical, green-tiled room, unusually expressive ambient music, jagged pools of light and security camera screens monitoring our Macbethian man -- each one sinks in like another point in favor of the one-man concept. But "Macbeth"'s appearance does it no favors. This good play about a mad man, and not-so-good version of "Macbeth," often finds itself in the awkward position of being upstaged by its own stage.

Directed by John Tiffany (the man behind this year's Tony winning musical, "Once") and Andrew Goldberg, the play -- part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival -- begins as an anonymous man enters a mental ward, stripped of his clothes, belongings and a bit of DNA from under his fingernails. Two other characters -- played by Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig, his caretakers at the asylum -- occasionally occupy the stage, most frequently to observe their patient through a large glass window that looms overhead.

The play, which initially premiered at the National Theatre of Scotland, is shaved down to 110 minutes of dialogue, edited such that the script resides in "Macbeth"'s most psychologically minded lines. But just as swiftly as this retelling's mental patient begins to unhinge -- revealing Macbeth, the Lady, King Duncan, Banquo, the three witches and MacDuff as his alter egos -- so does the play itself.

Cumming is a dynamic presence, commanding all corners of the stage. But the moments that left the deepest impressions were not made by his Scottish lilt -- easy as it is on the ears, Cumming's oral movement from character to character is not so clearly defined that a casual "Macbeth" reader could track a well-laid plot. The production is mercifully nudged along by the security camera screens, which are as effective at building a disturbing environment as they are acting as flashcards for the characters -- when Cumming plays the three witches, each screen reflects his face as a different witch.

But animated though he is, he never fully occupies a mental state long enough to communicate the play's ever-growing vacuum of humanity. And here we return to its inherent limitation -- the absence of a cast, a void that's most noticeable when inanimate objects sharing stage time with Cumming (a doll, a small sweater, a raven) start to feel like welcome human presences.

Cumming is most convincing when he lets his physicality guide the story. In one particularly attention-grabby scene, he plays out a sex scene between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, thrusting his body as the Lady on top and falling flat and vulnerable as Macbeth. Alternating between the two as he does here, Cumming is in peak form, sensually maneuvering both roles and wringing free of gender divides. That was, after all, his intention here. He told The Stage last year that he "wanted to swap the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, because there are so many things about gender, I thought it would be a really exciting idea to flip that." In flipping them quite literally, for a moment the characters fade to the background, and the emotional weight of the play bleeds through.

This rethinking is most worthwhile when it brings new perspective to "Macbeth," which arrives each time the hospital attendants enter the room. To save our confused patient from his latest fit of insanity, they clean him, cradle him, drug him and tuck him into bed. These moments offer the tenderest views of "Macbeth," ones that reveal a scared, juvenile man buried under the murderous ramblings, who on more than one occasion asks his caretakers, "When shall we three meet again?" What we're left with is a Macbeth who desperately doesn't want to be left alone with his thoughts, and is perhaps most in need of a hug. Now, if only we didn't want the attendants to stay on stage as much as he did.

Watch the trailer for "Macbeth," and go here for ticket information.

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