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Deadly Ambition in Ashland

They left to see Macbeth — not in thunder, lightning, or rain, but… snow!

A light blizzard was blowing on the Northern California mountain passes as they cruised past Crescent City, driving an old Ford station wagon with dubious tire tread. Some might think this a deadly proposition. Certainly, a mild-mannered couple might be considered quite ambitious if they decided to drive their old beater up to Ashland through dangerous Saturday morning snow showers for some murderous Shakespearean fare. But, their particular ambition is nothing when compared to the vicious aggression of a young Scottish couple that decides to “off” a regional leader named Duncan through a violent power play in an almost gangland style coup. Macbeth, the husband of the pair is crowned as the new king, and all the while his seductive and ambitious wife is prodding him deeper into a “winner-takes-all” situation. But, losers in this game — as we soon see — have only one fate up Ashland way: a grisly, visceral and especially satisfying nightmarish end.

On this Saturday in late spring at 5am, the intrepid Humboldt County couple left the relatively temperate weather of the Arcata Bottoms to see the bloody play, Macbeth. Even bolstered by strong tea at that early hour, the middle-aged woman in the station wagon felt particularly unLady-Macbethian. Fatigued from the previous week’s labors, she did not realize that slippery roads lay ahead and, although she was enthusiastic about the journey, she was not inclined to poke or tease her husband to drive the old beater to Ashland. Besides, and in retrospect, she probably thought that, if the old Ford didn’t slide under the belly of an 18-wheeler or fly off into the Smith River, the worst that could happen to a modest Humboldt County couple would be getting dragged back onto the road a little worse for wear, a “sorry sight” indeed!

As they drove off that morning, she tucked her worn copy of Shakespeare’s play into the side pocket of the door, the heater roaring at full blast. She mused that she was quite satisfied not to live in a damp and drafty castle with a smoky fireplace on some heath in Scotland a thousand years in the past. She also considered, on that damp and rainy morning, that the absence of heat might have contributed to the general crankiness of Lady Macbeth. Still, whether irritable or not. that aggressive wife scolded, seduced, and otherwise badgered her husband to pursue a course of ambitious risk-taking that, in the end, resulted in a baptism in blood, or perhaps we should say, “gouts” of blood.

When our adventurous couple discovered that snow showers prevented them from flying their beloved Cessna up to Ashland for some sushi, sake and Shakespeare — and knowing that the tickets were not refundable — they decided that driving the station wagon would have to do. The play was the thing for them and the prospect of seeing Macbeth, one of their favorite portrayals of unchecked criminality and bloody ambition, prompted them to leave Sunny Brae early Saturday morning under a somber overcast. In the car, they prepped themselves for the play by reviewing the great scenes, which follow one after another: the witches casting their evil spells on the heath, the famous “Is that a dagger I see before me?” monologue, the mad “out damn spot” scene with Lady Macbeth, and the murders, oh! the murders: Duncan, Banquo, Lady Macduff and her son, who weeps piteously to his mother, “He has killed me, mother. Run away, I pray you."” It is a brilliant display illustrating the human descent into horror, where murder becomes justifiable and necessary, where blood coats the actions and consciences of Macbeth and his wife, where finally, and to the immense satisfaction of the audience, the couple collapses into moral madness.

In contrast to the ethical and moral dilemmas of the Macbeths, our humble couple faced no earth-shaking philosophical issues as they navigated passed Orick and Crescent City, where they modestly allowed super SUVs and expensive four-wheel drive Volvos to steam past them in an impatient flurry. But the wife's cheerful snobbery turned to resentment and, to some degree, envy, as their old car began to slip here and there on the grades. Oh, she thought, “Whither should I fly?” And, not possessing the unswerving determination of dear Lady Macbeth, she whined cowardly to her husband that it might be better if they gave up and returned to the low elevation and significantly non-snowy roads of Sunny Brae,

“Perhaps,” she caviled to her husband, “we might try again during midsummer for a more promising trip, when we might find, instead of this snow, a place where “the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine…” As impressed as he was with her simpering supplications, he informed her that she was making “much ado about nothing.” Looking over the steep cliffs of State Route 199, she replied earnestly that she did not want to end up in a ditch “…delivered by a drab” or floating down the river in a comedy of errors. Instead of going to see the dark and depressing Macbeth, she argued, perhaps they might try to escape the flaring tempest and avoid running on the “sharp wind of the north” to do business “…in the veins o' th'earth when it is baked with frost.”

Her husband turned to her and with a look that said, “this was your idea.” He quoted from Henry IV Part 2: “You were the tutor and the feeder of my riots.” Retrieving her book of Shakespearean Insults from under the seat, she parried with, “Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.”

And in this manner, trying to make light of a nervous situation, they topped the summit at Prairie Creek State Park, where the sky above the downhill grade was filled with large flakes — where all around them was only the beautiful flurried air. As they began their descent down the long steep grade, the intrepid LTD suddenly slipped left and began to slide sideways. The wife was aghast but held her tongue as the valiant husband wrestled the car to rights again. As stoic as she tried to remain during the downhill skid, she could not help but whimper in a very unLady-Macbethian manner. And in a slow motion blaze of inconsequentiality, she wondered what Lady Macbeth’s Christian name might have been. Was it Christine, Brittany, Tiffany, or Morgan? Usa, Cathy, Joan, or Helen? How about Jennifer? Jennifer Macbeth. It definitely did not seem to possess the killer quality. As these unrelated thoughts surged through the wife’s mind and as she clutched at her husband's sleeve, she did not notice at first, the restored and normal attitude of the LTD station wagon, the sudden end of the snowfall or the appearance of a peeking sun that seemed to beckon them, uninjured and intact, onward to scenes of bloody desire and deadly ambition in Ashland.

The rest of their journey was uneventful. Cave Junction and Grant's Pass were clear and easy to circumnavigate and, finally, having arrived in Ashland, the couple took their ease in a small cottage motel near downtown. The wife breathed a sigh of relief and investigated their room, which was clean and tidy, inexpensive and charming, with a small vase of fresh flowers on the kitchenette table.

After refreshing themselves, they walked to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s New Theatre, a beautiful recently constructed theatre built in an arena style, where the audience surrounds the stage in several banks of tiered seats. Because it is so new, as well as computerized with high tech sound and lights, it is muted and strangely quiet inside, the soundproofing enhanced by a relatively low ceiling. Compared to outdoor or older theatres, this theatre seals the audience into the space in an almost claustrophobic embrace. But anyone who enjoys pure theatre understands that this is a desirable effect, supporting the willing suspension of disbelief, and, because it seats only about 200 people, the intimacy of the New Theatre is up close and personal.

The Humboldt couple found their way to their seats, and contemplated the lean and modern-looking stage before them. It was a large circular platform, in the middle of which could be seen a small disk-like declivity. Because they did not know what to expect, the center looked like a gleaming red, sort of translucent pool. At first, it seemed to represent an image of frozen bloodiness. Later, it would be obvious that this was the central focus of the mise en scene and that it was a thick red liquid that could only be blood. The audience first realized what it was when Macbeth fell to his knees after killing Duncan, and, shrieking madly, pulled two dripping daggers from within the bloody pool, red streaks sluicing down his white robe. Up until that time. the audience was not completely certain that the pool was actually filled with a liquid. When it was revealed, there was a palpable intake of breath — the audience was repelled, shocked, and sickened by this literalization of murder. Throughout the play, the blood continued to stain everything: the characters, their clothing, and their consciences. It was particularly effective to see Macbeth and his Lady hosting the banquet where Banquo’s ghost makes an appearance. The audience could see their bloodstained underclothing beneath the ill- concealing party clothes.

Yes, this play was one of the bloodiest plays the Humboldt County couple had ever witnessed, but unlike the Times-Standard writer, Beti Traub, who slammed the play in a harshly critical manner, this couple thought the play was very effective, unique, and powerful. Libby Appel, Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as well as the director of this production of Macbeth, is to be praised not condemned for doing something new in the New Theatre.

Besides the “paint-by-numbers carnage” that Traub accuses thee production of showing, besides her complaint that thousands of school children would be “artistically cheated” this summer, Traub claims that the true horror of Macbeth should emphasize “the unseen psychological horrors on a selective basis.” In other words, the gore should be minimized so that we can contemplate the brutal criminal — potentially present in all our subconsciouses — while sipping tea from a distance or in tiny well-laundered tidbits. Macbeth and his Lady, played admirably by G. Valmont Thomas and BW Gonzalez, take us into their world with what seems at first to be an almost innocent lack of morality. We are as unprepared for the horrible results of their disturbing, almost adolescent plan as they are. Macbeth loses his last remaining sense of right and wrong rather quickly when the gaunt and haunting visage of his best friend, Banquo, appears again and again to accuse him in silence.

The only point that was slightly disappointing to the couple from Humboldt County was the exclusion of some of the witch scenes. The language of the cauldron-stirring scene is so rich that it is hard to take the play without it, “.. …Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog...nose of Turk, and Tartars lips, finger of birth-strangled babe ditch-delivered by a drab, make the gruel thick and slab…” Nonetheless, it was a good show, with six immensely talented actors, who showed what disciplined performance is all about. Even without the cauldron scene, the performance was so unique and disturbing that only a callused or indifferent spectator could avoid the slight nagging sense of guilt each audience member must have experienced at the end. Indeed, as pious as we might be, it must be admitted that we are all capable — although we may never act it out — of betrayal, of selfish, murderous, and self-serving deeds in varying degrees of cruelty. If the audience does not somehow share personally with this universal application, there is no true identification or empathy with the downfall of Macbeth and his Lady. Let he who is free of sin, cast the first stone!

After the show, the Humboldt County couple felt dazed, disturbed, and transported by what they had seen. They remarked to each other that Shakespeare seemed to always go straight to the moral sticking points of human behavior with amazing accuracy, and that time did not seem to change the essential human dilemmas in his plays. Julius Caesar, The Winter's Tale, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice as well as Macbeth — only a handful of the more than 30 plays that he wrote — are evocative pictures of our own moral make up, our own greed, our own ambition, our own lack of forgiveness, and our own tragic love stories.

Feeling particularly hungry but not craving rare or bloody T-bone steaks, the couple wandered off in search of sushi and sake, talking to each other about the intense drama they had just witnessed. And later, as even more snow blew outside the window of their cozy cottage motel, the happy couple fell asleep very grateful and very glad indeed, that they could sleep — unlike Macbeth who would never again release himself into that “innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, the death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feats…”

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