Alan Cumming's 'Macbeth' on Broadway: Bring your Cliffs Notes

alan-cumming-macbeth.jpg
It takes an actor of Alan Cumming's incredible talent to perform a one-man version of "Macbeth."

The limited engagement, running until June 30 at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, has Cumming playing more than 15 characters. At times, though, another man and a woman are on stage, in the asylum, where this version takes place.

And therein lies the problem.

Cumming (Broadway's "Cabaret" and TV's "The Good Wife") is magnificent. It will be shocking if he's not nominated for a Tony Award, and could easily win. He manages to infuse the characters, even Macbeth, with humanity.

And just how often do you feel sympathy for a serial killer? Nuanced, fearless and extremely versatile, Cumming strips himself -- quite literally -- of everything to play Macbeth, and everyone else. But if you do not know "Macbeth" well - and I mean really well -- then The National Theatre of Scotland's production is confusing, frustrating and, at times, incomprehensible. 

It's an extremely rare occurrence but it is possible to love the actor, hate the production.

The larger question is what is the point of presenting it this way? Is it to bring Shakespeare to a new audience? To bathe them in this play of intrigue and murder and have them experience the wonder of his words? Or is it to show off? That's the feeling I can't shake. Despite how wonderful Cumming is, and he does feel as if he leaves a couple of pints of blood on that stage nightly, the production is incredibly pretentious. 

Shakespeare is often set in modern times, and that can help bring audiences into the story. And though this is updated, it is told in such a convoluted fashion, it is a challenge to keep up. In the first few minutes, there is radio static and the actors are silent as they remove Cumming's modern attire and give him white scrubs. He then asks the famous first line of "When shall we three meet again?"

Macbeth is in an insane asylum, with mint-green tile walls, cots, a wheelchair, table, a tub, a sink and a staircase. A physician ( Jenny Sterlin) and an orderly ( Brendan Titley) attend to him and watch him through a window. Sometimes when she talks, her voice is altered so she sounds like a female Darth Vader. When the orderly plays Banquo's ghost, he's in a leather S&M mask and a suit. Malcolm, son of Duncan, is a creepy, old-fashioned baby doll.

Cumming uses magnificent restraint at points, and has a Zen master's control of his body. Just how long he holds his breath under water is worthy of Olympic diving. We know there were no tricks because three large-screen TVs face the audience playing what cameras record on stage.

That Cumming is not doing matinees is completely understandable; it's amazing that he can do this performance more than once. Cumming does use a burr, at times, and it's interesting to hear him in his native accent. And what play would be better for it? 

Yet as I watched the man next to me, head in hands for much of it, I couldn't blame him. The audience gave Cumming three deserved curtain calls, more than I have seen this season at any performance. Still, for those of us who cannot quote "Macbeth" at length, we should not need to study before going to the theater. The play should pretty much explain itself.

Photo/Video credit: Jeremy Daniel