It's always a useful exercise to wonder how far a man can travel on the strength of his delusions.
A vexed and perplexed Matt Witten asks this question from a hundred angles as the title character in Saul Elkin's savvy production of "Macbeth" running through Aug. 20 in Delaware Park. And the answer comes, as it must in this most morally clear-cut Shakespearean tragedy, in a deluge of blood set to a symphony of steel.
With a straightforward approach, a smart design and mercifully few flights of directorial fancy, Elkin strips "Macbeth" down to its two elemental parts: ambition and its price.
Ambition comes in the form Macbeth (Witten), who thirsts for power, and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Lisa Vitrano), who thirsts for violence. They make a nightmarish team, each making up for the other's deficiencies and together clearing a path to power strewn with bodies.
It is Witten's nuanced and somewhat restrained performance as a man tortured by his own dreams of power that serves as this production's primary source of fuel. As in the past (especially "An Illiad" and "Clybourne Park," both at Road Less Traveled Productions), Witten again proves himself to be one of Buffalo's most capable and sensitive performers.
His Macbeth is tortured from the very start, clearly engaged in a struggle to reconcile his loyalty and respect for life with his animal thirst for power. In Witten's portrayal, tinged with searching facial expressions and subtle body language that suggests a roiling internal debate, we watch as the last vestiges of his decency coagulate like so much spilled blood.
The blunting of Macbeth's humanity begins when Macbeth and his frenemy Banquo (Ray Boucher, in fine form) encounter three witches on a heath (Cassidy Kruezer, Gretchen Martino and Amelia Scinta) who tempt him with prophesies of a better life. It continues with the encouragement of Lady Macbeth, who provides the ignition spark for the fissile material that is Macbeth's ego.
That ego crashes hard upon the revelation of Lady Macbeth's death, giving way to one of Shakespeare's most famous soliloquies. Witten delivers the lines we've heard a thousand times with a fresh and captivating reading. Improbably, he makes us feel anew the desolation and sorrow of his character's realization that he is a bit player in a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Next to Witten's dynamic performance, Vitrano's exaggerated Lady Macbeth seems more appropriate for a camp takeoff than a credible psychodrama. She is competent and compelling, as always, but her delivery could benefit from a bit of attenuation to make her character register on a more human level.
It doesn't help that designer Ken Shaw has costumed her in a crimson bodice and exaggerated bustle – however beautiful – to look like a raven who might take flight at any moment.
Elsewhere, Shaw's costume design is brilliant. His leather-clad Scottish soldiers, down to their terrifying haircuts, seem to have emerged from the set of "Mad Max" and stopped at their local leather bar on their way to the stage. Shakespeare's witches, continuing the avian theme that runs through the production, are a riot of red and black, there one moment and the next vanished "as breath into the wind." They perform appropriately birdlike choreography by Terri Lynn Vaughan.
David Dwyer's set, constructed from rough-hewn pieces of wood suggesting the famous prophecy of Birnham wood moving to Dunsinane, lends a rustic quality to the affair. (You might even be able to see a few teeth marks left by Chris Hatch, who gives a resolute if somewhat overbearing performance as Macduff.)
A note to those with kids: Elkin and his players spare nothing in the way of violence, so concerned parents may consider this inappropriate for children younger than 13 or so. Some 35-year-old critics may also be worried about getting nightmares.
For the rest of you, grab a hearty bottle of red, settle into your spot on the hill and prepare for the worst. It's going to be a bloody night.
★ ★ ★ (out of four)
"Macbeth" runs through Aug. 20 in a Shakespeare in Delaware Park Production on Shakespeare Hill, at the western edge of the park near the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. Call 856-4533 or visit shakespeareindelawarepark.org.