Macbeth in the Park: Is Liev Really the Greatest?

This is Oskar Eustis’ first season as artistic director of the Public Theater, and of course we all wish him well. The Public is just about the last of our major nonprofit theaters not to sell out to Broadway (though it’s had its shaky moments). Crucially, it’s the only leading nonprofit that seems to be aware that New York is a multicultural city. Mr. Eustis might begin his reign, however, by taking a cool, hard look at the glorious, surprising reason the Public is in business in the first place.

Free Shakespeare in the Park was Joseph Papp’s inspired and idealistic invention when he founded the Public half a century ago, and it remains his lasting legacy. But as legacies go, I’m far from alone in believing that the sorry state of the productions themselves has become a too well-known joke. Anything usually goes in the park, and anything usually does.

It would be a great big thing if Mr. Eustis would make a fresh start and take the charter of the Public Theater seriously. (His predecessor, George Wolfe, revealed no dynamic interest in Shakespeare). Nothing could be more essential to us. The free performances in the park are more than a charter: They are the direct link to thousands and thousands of youngsters who’ve never before seen a Shakespeare performance. They are the future.

But in his enthusiasm, I’m afraid that Mr. Eustis has already blundered. Announcing a season of war plays in the park “for our divided and war-torn nation,” his choice of Macbeth is mistaken. Macbeth isn’t among Shakespeare’s war plays. War itself is peripheral to the action. Macbeth—it’s no secret—is about consuming, murderous ambition.

Why not let the great play speak for itself for a change? Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies, and it’s easily the most accessible. It whizzes along with its mad witches and ghosts. But Mr. Eustis and his director, Moisés Kaufman, have Iraq on their minds. The Macbeth production thus takes place in an all-purpose plastic war zone, which serves no imaginative purpose except to remind us of the productions we’ve seen with the same over-familiar, deadening set.

The action vaguely takes place—the Playbill informs us— “around World War I,” and the cast, led by Liev Schreiber, are therefore costumed vaguely in army gear. In such simplistic ways, we’re meant to be reminded of the horrors of war (assuming we need to be reminded). But, as always with the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, the production and its ragbag of costumes dodge haphazardly around various time zones in an effort to popularize an already popular play. Now a sword fight, then a gun. Now the Edwardian era, then the 30’s, then it’s sort of Elizabethan, and always we end up in that fantasy land of ribboned generals, Ruritania. If you are everywhere, you are nowhere.

“It is a joy to welcome Moisés Kaufman, one of the most innovative and original directors we have,’’ Mr. Eustis announced with understandable exuberance. But Mr. Kaufman has no experience of directing Shakespeare.

He’s a good director of docudramas—not an innovative one—who’s known for directing Doug Wright’s solo show about an East German transvestite, I Am My Own Wife, as well as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (which he also wrote), and another collaborative docudrama about the persecution of gays, the fine Laramie Project. That Mr. Kaufman has no experience directing any classic play needn’t have been decisive. To the contrary, uncluttered by received ideas, the first-time director of Shakespeare might have something new and exciting to offer.

But not with this flat, mediocre production, I regret to say. The essential question with any Macbeth is simple enough: Are we horrified by it or not? There’s that unearthly marriage of political ambition and witchery, the Macbeths (and there’s the rest: everyone the two thugs butcher for a crown, including children). “All is the fear and nothing is the love.” Sleep is impossible for the terrifying—and terrified—Macbeths. Sleep can no longer exist for them. Their diseased world is nightmare. But if we are not horrified by the play, it is no Macbeth.

If ever an actor needs a fine Shakespearean director, it’s Liev Schreiber. Trumpeted too glibly as the leading classical actor of his generation—for the field is thin—Mr. Schreiber appears to be directing himself. His accomplishments are admirable—ease and fluency with Shakespearean verse, confident stature and intelligence, a certain stage swagger, particularly when feigning modesty. Though he’s best suited to the villain than to the romantic hero, Mr. Schreiber is also one of the very few American star actors who is prepared to put himself to the fire in Shakespearean roles (Henry V, Iago and Hamlet for the Public of late).

But fine actor though he is, those were not defining performances for the ages. He has yet to stamp the roles memorably with greatness. But what is crucially lacking in all his classical work is the firm hand—and guidance—of a director.

Mr. Schreiber acts alone. He is the only Shakespearean actor I know of who regularly appears in a spotlight. The lights go down, a spot shines on him—and, soft! he speaks! His Macbeth soliloquies are indulged this way, as was the Schreiber Iago. It’s a hackneyed stage device—the showy equivalent of John Barrymore acting only in narcissistic profile—and Mr. Schreiber surely knows better, if only a director would remind him.

His Macbeth is a surprising disappointment. Neither fish nor fowl, it’s a shallow, crowd-pleasing performance. He’s more of a good soldier who’s compelled to murder by a bossy wife rather than a haunted psychopath whose flame of vaulting ambition has only to be ignited. The star speaks in a British accent, as if that makes his Macbeth more legit, or he uses an accent that’s suspiciously transatlantic, thereby neutralizing the sound of vulgar American, I assume.

Most damagingly, Mr. Schreiber fails to engage us emotionally. Macbeth’s swift ascent and fall leave us cold. Trying to move us late in Act II, Mr. Schreiber appears to be stiffly unhinged instead. He’s posing far too much, acting from the neck up. His voice becomes oddly strangulated—literally as if he’s got a chicken bone stuck in his throat. His ill-at-ease Macbeth needs authentic feeling, not the Heimlich Maneuver.

But then, his Mrs. Macbeth has no terror in her at all—and, fatally, no sense of primal evil. The lovely Jennifer Ehle, costumed in a ball gown like Evita, is disastrously too refined for Lady Macbeth. There’s no simmering electricity with her better half. Worse, her sleepwalking scene is stuck for some wayward reason on the top of a staircase.

As for the rest: Florencia Lozano’s Lady Macduff is so hysterical from start to finish that, frankly, it’s a relief when she dies. One of my colleagues has rightly pointed out that Teagle F. Bougere’s Banquo is so lifeless there’s no discernible difference in his performance as Banquo’s ghost. The drunk porter—played for no particular reason by one of the witches, the game Lynn Cohen—isn’t drunk, but stone sober. The prophecy of Macbeth’s dusty death with the Birnam wood scene—“Fear not, till Birnam wood / Do come to Dunsinane”—goes for nothing with the platitude of an army’s slow-mo death to gunfire accompanied by the usual choral music.

So it goes, like a bad film. So it has always gone. Until, perhaps, Mr. Eustis decides to do something about it and appoints a permanent director of Shakespeare in the Park, who hires the best directors in the world, who know what they’re doing.

I wish.