Shakespeare & Company is awash this summer in ambivalent royals goaded by love to take the crown. Of course, there is a significant difference (other than name recognition) between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Odo Valsecca, the hero of Edith Wharton’s first novel, The Valley of Decision. The former is a warrior who becomes a killer whose first murder sets in motion the kind of domino effect that would gratify a Cold War hawk. Odo, by contrast, is an idealist nobleman trying to force Enlightenment reforms on a fictional duchy in feudal, Church-controlled 18th-century Italy in Wharton’s historical romance, which was published in 1902, flickered like Macbeth’s brief candle, and was never reprinted.
S&C artistic director Tina Packer chose Macbeth in the wake of September 11 as a means of exploring the psychology of violence. The production, then, concentrates on the mental and emotional disintegration of the Macbeths (and of their relationship) as guilt and fear close in on them, leading, in Macbeth, to a bullying recklessness as he flails for control and identity. Babyfaced Dan McCleary plays the fallen Macbeth as a lost boy hiding behind a corporate veneer and confiding in the audience, albeit with more bemusement than evil glee, in the manner of Richard the Third. His mental journey is a perplexed and troubled one punctuated by weeping and explosions, finally sagging, wretchedly, into " Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. " He’s so depressed that there are times when he appears to be sleepwalking.
And Macbeth has no corner on that market. In Packer’s interpretation, Carolyn Roberts’s Lady Macbeth appears for the Letter Scene in white pajamas, looking dejected and dragging a rag doll — there are strong if unspoken implications that the Macbeths have lost a baby. Macbeth’s missive relating the prognostications of the Weird Sisters (one of which has already come true), however, snaps his wife out of her possibly post-partum depression like a chiropractor cracking a bone. Her " Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here " prayer is exultant — though it clearly doesn’t work, since when Macbeth sneaks up and surprises her from behind, her rich laugh is followed by some sexual wrestling that ends with her straddling her thane. This is the first time I have seen this scene played with the hint that, however propitious Duncan’s plan to sleep over is to the Macbeths’ burgeoning plan to murder him, it does alas mean they have to hop up and polish the silver rather than have sex.
Like most of Packer’s Shakespeare productions, this one is marked by some interesting ideas, particularly in the presentation of the witches as lab-coated scientists messing with Nature, and by forceful acting that clarifies the text. The production is set, vaguely, in the 21st century (there are aural flashbacks to the 20th), with soldiers in combat fatigues and Macbeth, as king, sporting a gray suit, a medallion, and a presidential front that belies his private unraveling. That’s expressed primarily in his relationship to Lady Macbeth, for whom all love, save a boyish dependency, seems to shrivel. Indeed, the suffering to which the bloody-handed couple have condemned themselves is manifested in their increasing lack of synchronicity, each needy yet repulsed by the other.
On a set consisting of little more than clusters of smooth red rocks and flags of state, eight actors take on all the roles, including a cadre of Secret Service agents, an eager Fleance, and a somewhat sulky Donalbain. Judith McSpadden’s Ross fields a viable Scottish accent, though she seems to be the only person in this particular bleeding bagpipe nation who does. And Michael Hammond, crawling out of a trap door in old-hippie tie-dye and high heels to milk and place self-referential ornaments on the knock-knocking Porter’s comic shenanigans, has the 21st-century groundlings — high-school kids seated in boxes on the stage — eating out of his silver slipper. (It’s a credit to McCleary’s considerable power in the second half that the Porter’s laugh-grabbing allusion to Macbeth’s " Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage " does nothing to mute the doleful potency of the real thing.)
The witches (or " spirits from the other world " ), faceless black-robed figures and voices floating on the air in their initial scenes, appear in the fourth act as the robotic scientists who would seem to be manifestations of Macbeth’s anxiety. Making use of lab equipment and empty test-animal cages, they recite their double-double-toil-and-trouble recipe like doctors calling for scalpels. The apparitions they conjure to give Macbeth false confidence take the form of amplified voices and cold, flashing light. And to bring the fantasy sequence to an audacious finale, the whole coven breaks into a sexy disco routine in which Macbeth, tie loosened and shirttails out, participates like a drunken Shriner.
But what with few cuts, the Porter’s expanding his part, and McCleary’s slowly reasoned first-act reactions to his predicament, this three-hour Macbeth flies in the face of the two-hour, intermissionless juggernaut that has become the rage. Both the tepid Kelsey Grammar offering and the darkly powerful Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Anthony Sher took that approach. Packer, in her deliberate effort to slow things down, to reflect on the descent into violence and its complex effect on heretofore honorable people, mutes the play’s imagery of world and time spinning out of control, McCleary’s Macbeth raging after them like a child that has let go his balloon.
IN THE COURSE OF ITS 25 YEARS, the first 23 of them at Edith Wharton’s one-time Berkshire " cottage, " the Mount, Shakespeare & Company has augmented its Stratford-on-Avon with Old New York. Founding member Dennis Krausnick has adapted some 30 Wharton short stories and novels for the stage, to various effect. Many of these pieces were performed in Wharton’s own sitting room, which has been replaced at the troupe’s expansive new acreage by an even more graceful parlor in the Spring Lawn manse.
Especially with the novels, the adaptations inevitably suffer from telescoping and loss of narrative voice; plot predominates over character. The stories themselves, as in the case of The Custom of the Country and Summer, can be compelling. But The Valley of Decision seems an impossible folly; the able Krausnick is faced with a 700-page novel of love, political intrigue, and speechifying idealism into which he plunges two-thirds of the way through. Thus he introduces us to Odo, who was raised in poverty and then restored to the aristocracy and educated in the ideas of the Enlightenment, just as Odo is preparing, on a storm-buffeted night in 1783, to usher his tutor’s daughter and her father’s Church-banned book out of Italy to Switzerland.
Suddenly there appears one Orazio De Crucis, a Jesuit-priest pal of Odo’s, with the news that the duke of Pianura (an imaginary duchy in Lombardy) is dying and that Odo has been named regent. " No way " is Odo’s response as he prepared to follow the woman he loves into political exile. But the zealously reformist Fulvia Vivaldi (the tutor’s daughter) persuades him to choose duty over love, and back he goes — into an impossible tangle of power and privilege where neither the libertarian nobles nor the Catholic Church wants the reforms he espouses, reforms that would improve the lives of the impoverished. And the priests have all the mumbo-jumbo they need to turn the superstitiously religious peasants against him. Moreover, it takes the duke two years to die; the French-born duchess spends the entire exchequer on her menagerie of exotic animals; and there is a hunchbacked political radical boiling in the background and trying to write a constitution based on a smuggled copy of the American Declaration of Independence.
The play spans six years, during which Fulvia returns to become the new duke’s mistress and the hunchback’s ally. Orazio continues as the voice of reason, mediating among a foppish " poet of freedom, " a pragmatic Court minister, the " let them eat cake " duchess (whom Odo must marry, for political and financial reasons), and the usually apoplectic hunchback. People say things like, " To help you I must step aside, and to love you I must give you up, " though there are a few good lines. Reminded that the Holy Office used to be called the Inquisition, Odo replies dryly, " I believe they’ve stopped asking questions. "
But The Valley of Decision is a melodrama mixed with a political tract. There is little that adapter Krausnick, director Rebecca Holderness, or decent actors like Elizabeth Aspenlieder, who brings a touching fervency to Fulvia, or Lon Troland Bull, who imbues Orazio with a quizzical intelligence, can do to save it. It was indeed a valley of decision in which the choice was made to outfit this out-of-print political bodice ripper by a major American author for the stage.