Larry Carpenter's 'Macbeth' Comes to Pasadena's A Noise Within Theater

Craig Schwartz

The director compares his new production of the Shakespeare play to modern-day America, saying: "If somebody says, well, you can be king, the American ethos right now goes, why not? All I have to do is kill a couple of people and I can be king."

When William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, evil felt like a real-and-present danger to the people of London. Guy Fawkes’ plan to blow up the House of Lords had been uncovered months before and the feeling that terror lurked among them might easily be compared to a city closer to home at the beginning of the current century.

In his new production of the play at Pasadena’s A Noise Within theater, running through May 11, director Larry Carpenter tries to come to a better understanding of evil by emphasizing the human frailty of the sociopathic Scot and his plotting spouse. He doesn’t go so far as to compare Jacobean England with modern-day America, but parallels between Macbeth’s “Foul is fair” and Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” are obvious.

“If somebody says, well, you can be king, the American ethos right now goes, why not? All I have to do is kill a couple of people and I can be king,” Carpenter tells THR. “I do think there’s a psychopathological component to this play, which relates directly to gun control issues, to the media, reality TV shows, all of the sort of dysfunctional behavioral programming that seems to overwhelm our society right now.”

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Known mainly for directing daytime soaps One Life to Live and General Hospital, Carpenter has a long history in theater, both regional and Broadway, where he earned a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for his 1990 production of Privates on Parade.

His Macbeth stars Elijah Alexander (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) as the ill-fated Thane and Jules Willcox (We Are the Band) as his haunted wife who spurs him on to murder when King Duncan, the last step between Macbeth and the throne, comes to spend the night.

“I think evil is opportunistic,” says Carpenter. “I think in ordinary circumstances, they might not have so easily been tempted to take this course of action. And as a moral-ethical cautionary tale, we should all understand that when we’re at our weakest, those are the times that perhaps the dark side is apt to take advantage of us.”

Macbeth and his wife are without children, and some suggest her talk of having “given suck” indicates they lost a child. Banquo himself explains Macbeth’s unstable state by noting, “he has no children.” The new production uses this notion as a jumping-off point featuring an empty cradle in the play’s opening.

“What we were trying to get at was sort of signing a back story to them as palpably as we could so that we understood that she was vulnerable at this particular point in time and therefore, having the opportunity to replace her grief with ambition would be very useful and sort of humanize her,” explains Carpenter.

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Besides putting a face to evil, Shakespeare had an ulterior motive in writing Macbeth – sucking up to King James I, coronated in 1603, descended from the Stuarts, ancestor of the play’s Banquo. When seen from that character’s point of view, Macbeth is a tale of how the nobleman confronted an internal threat to the status quo and vanquished it, reflecting perhaps the foiling of the ill-fated Gunpowder Plot for which Fawkes (a Catholic soldier bent on installing a Catholic monarch) was sentenced to hang.

A patron of the performing arts, James doubled remuneration for court performances and doubled the number of commissions, a generous act Shakespeare and company were no doubt grateful for. Aware that James had written a book on demonology, Shakespeare included three witches in the play, as well as elements referring to the “heavenly gift of prophecy,” which James was reputed to possess.

Ultimately James was adored by the people, who enjoyed peace and low taxes during his reign, although he was fiscally irresponsible and presided over a scandal-ridden court that some say set the stage for the abolition of the monarchy during successor Charles I’s reign.

“It’s in a time period when a lot of revenge tragedies were being written,” observes Carpenter. “Shakespeare was a poet but he was also a very smart commercial playwright at that particular point in time. I feel like we all dance with devils and angels all through our life times. It’s who we choose to dance with the most that defines us.”

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