that play: a solo macbeth

On “That Play: A Solo Macbeth”

Below is my nytheatre.com review of That Play, a solo Macbeth performance showing at Stage Left Studio, April 4-May 25, 2013. If you’re a high-schooler who can’t be bothered to read Macbeth, consider this your Sparknotes summary come to life. If you’re everybody else, especially if you’ve never seen his work performed, consider this your experience of Shakespeare as Shakespeare would have known it. I remember when I hated Shakespeare. It lasted right until the moment I first saw one of his plays staged. In the Elizabethan era, the rich and poor alike would turn out for the theater; the very poor could buy a ticket for a penny and stand near the stage. Along with bear-baiting and cock-fighting, theater was the most popular entertainment of the day. This no longer holds true and it’s nice to have a show come along and remind you that theater is, and is supposed to be, fun. Elizabethan crowds were poorly educated but they didn’t need to be otherwise to enjoy Shakespeare; the horror, the laughter, the human things exist between the gaps of the text, and you only have to see it to see it.

There are two things you don’t do inside a theater: wish somebody “good luck” before a show, and say the word “Macbeth.” It is one of theater’s longstanding superstitions that uttering “Macbeth” out of character will bring on sure disaster. Instead, actors refer to it as “The Scottish Play,” “The Bard’s Play,” or simply, as actor/writer Tom Gualtieri does, That Play. As either the world’s most entertaining recap of Macbeth for someone who has never seen it, or a small master class in acting for those who love theater, That Play is a triumph. Between embodying 19 characters, Gualtieri offers swift summaries, wry asides, and asks for audience participation–but not too much of it, never fear–the stage belongs to him. Considering the show returns to Stage Left Studio now in its fifth extension, it seems Gualtieri can even say “Macbeth” without any fatal consequences.

For the 80-minute run of That Play, co-written with director Heather Hill, the only occupants of the small stage is the actor and one black box. Its bareness is a testament to the play’s well-repaid faith in its performer. Gualtieri employs true theatrical sleight-of-hand, marking his quicksilver metamorphoses by characteristic physical cues–Lady Macbeth impatiently sweeping a leg behind her as she goads Macbeth to his bloody bid for the throne, Macbeth, uselessly trying to hold her off with a forbearing arm held aloft, Macduff, arms akimbo, righteously defending the realm.

It’s a dizzying pleasure to watch Gualtieri dart in and out of the play. He abruptly cuts off Macbeth’s blustering soliloquy after the murder of King Duncan with “He’s talking way too much”–and promptly faints away as Lady Macbeth to distract the other characters. Also impressive is his emotional elasticity; the way he can breathe humor into the accents of the drunken porter and heartbreak into the cries of a bereaved Macduff with equal aplomb. He doesn’t get everybody right, every single time, but he comes closer than you’d think possible. And he doesn’t just move between characters, he moves with them; changing his posture as Macbeth descends into madness, a slight bend in his back signaling the twist of Macbeth’s soul, a terrible glint in his bloodshot eye.

Shakespeare’s text has been dissected and analyzed to the bone, but one obvious thing that came forcefully home to me again as Gualtieri, mesmerizing as all three weird sisters, adds “the finger of a birth-strangled babe” to the witches’ brew, is just how delicious his language is. It takes a skillful actor savoring the Bard’s words before you to remind you that in his day, while theater had the power to thrill and to move, it was foremost supposed to be a really good time. When Tom Gualtieri first springs onto the stage, he opens: “Okay,” I’ve got one.” This man is here to entertain.

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