Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Stage

Review: [email protected]'s 'Voodoo Macbeth' honors the Bard in an artful setting

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ST. PETERSBURG

The [email protected] salutes Shakespeare's 453rd birthday with Caribbean mojo and an ambitious spin on the Bard's epic tragedy of fatal ambition.

Artistic director Bob Devin Jones has retooled Orson Welles' Voodoo Macbeth with a collaborative approach, enlisting the participation of prominent local arts professionals.

[email protected]'s production adds just the right island witchcraft to the bloody tale. We are still left questioning, as Shakespeare intended, whether the Macbeths' madness truly originates from within.

Quick plot summary: Macbeth, a general of esteem, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become king. Overtaken by ambition and incited by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne. His guilt, paranoia and fears get the best of him.

From the rousing wedding opener and its blast of all-white-clad Afro-Caribbean dance reverie, to its exhilarating battle scenes to unsettling moments of witchcraft, Voodoo Macbeth owes much of its heft to the Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet. With the help of choreographer Jai Hinson, the musicians and dancers set the mood with West African-influenced movement and percussion. Instruments include the djembe, balafon, shekere, rainstick and other earthy instruments.

[email protected]'s biggest obstacle: pulling off both a Haitian dialect and Bard vernacular with supporting players of varying theatrical backgrounds. A few minor hiccups in dialect, line delivery and blocking opening night will hopefully be ironed out as the play continues its run.

Devin Jones surely has the dream team to perfect it. Fanni Green, a University of South Florida theater department alumna (recently magnificent in American Stage's Joe Turner's Come and Gone), provides vocal and dialect coaching; Sheila Cowley assists with dramaturg, and Dan Granke directs virtually flawless sword-fight scenes.

Saidah Ben Judah's costumes are on point, dressing up the players in a pleasing mix of gallantry and peasant garb.

In their portrayal of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Calvin M. Thompson and Erica Sutherlin initiate a lusty, passionate tone with their matrimonial kiss, and deftly play out the couple's descent into homicidal insanity with both charisma and nuance. Sutherlin just about evokes tears in her poignant delivery of Lady Macbeth's famous "Out out, damned spot" monologue.

As Macbeth, Thompson gives another stirring performance, bringing back that brooding intensity that made his portrayal of Herald Loomis in American Stage's Joe Turner Come and Gone so memorable.

Thaddeus Engle and Jesse Vance's lighting and shadow effects provide additional mood-setting magic, complemented nicely by an original art installation by muralist Ya La'ford.

Sharon Scott steals the stage as witch queen Hecate, setting the perfect example of linguistic and physical command uncompromised by feisty energy. Cranstan Cumberbatch as Malcolm and Satchel Andre Dennis as Macduff deliver mightily; Supporting standouts include witch Kylin Brady and the comical Andre Ezeugwu as the Porter.

Welles' script — truncated but mostly faithful verse by verse — sets Shakespeare's tragedy in 19th century Haiti instead of Scotland. The first production of Voodoo Macbeth featured an all African-American cast from Harlem, funded by the Federal Theater Project, an FDR New Deal cultural program that provided opportunities for black actors to perform in a wider variety of plays and in roles meatier than the usual bellhop or maid.

Fast forward to 2017, when federal cultural programs may face being cut instead of implemented. Devin Jones remedies any discouragement with a Voodoo Macbeth that pays homage to Haiti's African roots. He's also donating proceeds from ticket sales to local arts education.

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