Rhyme and Retribution 

A brutal Macbeth and a shocking Winter's Tale resonate in the aftermath of 9/11.

What is it that we love about Shakespeare? The man was a master rip-off artist. Almost every one of his stories and characters was lifted from other sources, he wrote in language that's hard for modern audiences to penetrate, and if you don't know the history behind some of the plays, you're likely to be flailing around trying to understand what's going on. So what keeps audiences flocking to his plays, four hundred years after they were written?

The answers are legion, the strongest being that we see our own lives reflected in those of Shakespeare's characters. They may be lords or fairies or witches or abandoned children, but they are familiar to us, and their travails are our own -- albeit on a much grander scale. Add beautiful language and the fact that the stories tend to end satisfyingly, whether in multiple weddings or multiple deaths, and Shakespeare's appeal becomes evident. Right now, open-air productions of two works from either end of Shakespeare's spectrum show us the consequences of actions we might ourselves take (the cold-blooded ambition of Macbeth, the baseless jealousy of The Winter's Tale's King Leontes) and then satisfy our urge for justice, either with swords or embraces.

Justice is a long time coming to the Scot Macbeth, whose ambitions transform him from a good and honor-bound man to one soaked in blood. Audiences may find the Cal Shakes Macbeth directed by Kate Whoriskey avant-garde (a woman near me was surprised by the sight of witch panties), but it is exciting, direct, and lean, as sharp as the sword's edge to which the mad king subjects Macduff's family. Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies; Whoriskey has made it even shorter by cutting some scenes (one of which, Hecate's appearance to instruct the witches in the third act, is understood to have been added by someone other than Shakespeare) and dialogue (notably the witches' discussion early on of the grief they cause people other than Macbeth). In fact, Whoriskey's treatment of the "weird sisters" is emblematic of the production itself -- by choosing to minimize supernatural intervention, the weight of events is placed more squarely on Macbeth himself (played by the sublimely haunted Boris McGiver, growing ever more twitchy) and on his power-hungry wife (the regal and resolute Mia Barron), an effect even more enhanced by making the witches sexy, sleek, and homogenous. Elizabethan audiences were fascinated by unearthly powers -- King James the First, in whose honor Macbeth was apparently written, was interested in witchcraft and demonology -- but Shakespeare, and Whoriskey, aren't letting Macbeth off the hook.

It may be stylized, but this Macbeth, with its faintly Asian flavor, is brutal. For example, Shakespeare had Macduff's wife killed offstage, after watching her son stabbed. Whoriskey reverses the order -- the son watches his mother die onstage, then is killed himself -- in a scene that while almost unbearable, clearly shows how far Macbeth has sunk. Credit McGiver with making this transition (a fast one, even with all of his moments of doubt) totally plausible -- once you start killing to cement your position, he shows us, you have no choice but to continue. Meanwhile Lady Macbeth is losing her mind, yet she never once accepts responsibility for her role in the bloodshed -- her sleepwalking, the spot that won't come out, are all her husband's fault.

It's worth making an effort to see this show at night, not only for the emotional impact but for Scott Zieliniski's ultra-spooky lighting design, which makes Banquo's ghost look as though he's come straight off the set of Apocalypse Now, and creates a jail cell of the back wall in the second half. At night Robert Pyzocha's white metal frame of a set looks like a terrarium or some other enclosure for unruly animals -- imagine Scottish lords as fate's hamsters. Garth Hemphill's sound design (a little heavy on one sample that I recognized from Peter Gabriel's Passion but otherwise wonderful) combines with Marc Morozumi's choreography to make many scenes especially dramatic, such as the music-video-like opening and Macbeth's slow-motion coronation. Fight director Christopher Morrison solidifies his reputation for excellence with the murders and sword fights. And did I mention that there are real live horses?

By contrast, justice comes to the hero of The Winter's Tale almost immediately, and it is grievous, but unlike Macbeth, King Leontes of Sicilia manages to redeem himself. The Winter's Tale is unusual because like Cymbeline and Pericles (all three were written around the same time), it begins with almost unbearable tragedy and ends with festivities. Leontes is entertaining his childhood friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Mistaking the friendship between his wife Hermione and Polixenes for something deeper, Leontes goes starkers and tasks loyal Camillo with killing Polixenes, jails Hermione, and demands that her newborn daughter be left to die on a remote shore. Camillo and Polixenes make a dash for it, Leontes and Hermione's young son dies of grief, and Hermione is pronounced dead by her lady-in-waiting Paulina. Coming to his senses rather too late, Leontes swears to spend the rest of his life punishing himself.

Cut to Bohemia, where the infant Perdita is found by kindly shepherds who raise her as their own. Sixteen years pass (much as in Pericles) and the lovely Perdita (Jacqueline Hillsman) falls in love with Polixenes' son Florizel (Dimitrios Ulises Escobar). No sooner have Leontes and Polixenes been reconciled and Perdita introduced to her joyous father than Paulina brings out a statue of Hermione. A very lifelike statue, wink wink, nudge nudge. Bottom line: two weddings, countless reunions, and a relatively low body count.

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, which has in the past gone with lighter works for their free Shakespeare in the Park series (most recently The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night's Dream) is taking a calculated risk with Tale. The beginning is pretty shocking for people lounging on the grass eating tofu pups, trying to understand why Leontes is getting so worked up about nothing.

Allen McKelvey and real-life wife Amy Mordecai return to the SF Shakes stage as Leontes and Hermione, and both are powerful in their roles: the former howling in impotent rage, the latter dignified and perplexed. Noteworthy among the denizens of the two countries are Paulina (Terry Bamberger, who owns the stage when she begs for her queen's life), and the delightful Luis Oropeza as the shepherd who finds Perdita.

The sets are extremely simple, yet effective. In the first act, two thrones bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to electric chairs, together with silver wall panels, evoke a chilly, paranoiac atmosphere. The costumes as well are rigid and military, in arctic white and blue. The second act, set in a happy Bohemia that looks suspiciously like California, is all bright paper lanterns and strewn flowers as the merry folk celebrate spring in colorful Latin-American garb. In the sheep-shearing festival scene, where a disguised Polixenes and Camillo witness Prince Florizel's affection for Perdita, director Paul Barry has wisely scrapped the original satyr's dance, focusing instead on a dance competition between three women for the attentions of Perdita's adoptive brother that incorporates flavors of Japan, Spain, and Haiti before segueing into a celebration that owes as much to the Appalachians as to Mexico.

Intriguingly, this is one of three Winter's Tales available to us this summer. It's not one of the more frequently produced works, perhaps because the beginning is so brutal, yet SF Shakes is joined by Cal Shakes in September, and a version is running up in Ashland. Could it be that the play's message -- happy endings are possible even after unspeakable grief -- strikes a longed-for post-9/11 chord? Or that we crave to know that those who do wrong are always, eventually, brought to justice?

Perhaps this is part of the answer to Shakespeare's relevance to audiences today -- the larger themes of humankind that resonated in 1611 have not lost purchase in the 21st century.

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