Cumming shows range in one-man 'Macbeth'

Alan Cumming as Macbeth

Alan Cumming as Macbeth (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

At first he looks so tiny, the man curled up on the hard narrow cot in the vast sick-green emptiness of an old insane asylum. If not for the closed-circuit TVs and code-lock on the door, the place could still be Victorian. And if not for the unexpected, magnificently fierce discipline of Alan Cumming, the play -- a 100-minute solo reimagining of "Macbeth" in a mental hospital -- could easily have been a gimmick.

But there is nothing small or cheesy about this "Macbeth," the smart and exhausting bravura import from the National Theatre of Scotland that kicked off this summer's Lincoln Center Festival.

To TV audiences, Cumming is now delightfully beloved as the manipulative middle-American campaign manager in "The Good Wife." In New York theater, however, he has long enjoyed the exotic flip side -- that is, dazzling if sometimes repetitious variations on the pansexual boundary-pusher he introduced as emcee in the 1998 revival of "Cabaret."

In this "Macbeth," the Scottish actor gets to show new range -- along with his multicolored Scottish burr -- while embodying all the major characters and some of the minor ones in Shakespeare's so-called Scottish Play. The production has been codirected by John Tiffany (the Scottish master responsible for "Once" and "Black Watch") and Andrew Goldberg (who runs a physicality-driven company here called Shakespeare's Gym).

What sounds like an odd collaboration has created a dark, visceral, altogether lucid showcase for quality showing-off in one of Shakespeare's best-known but least nuanced action-tragedies.

A prelude with electronic music introduces Cumming as a new patient, a febrile stranger with unexplained blood on his shirt, scratches on his chest and a wedding ring that gets removed while a doctor and a nurse (the only other actors, mostly silent) check him into a stark private vault with a surveillance window above.

To everyone's enormous credit, Cumming doesn't use high voices for the women or change much more than a gesture to delineate different characters. For the witches, a device that almost always reads scarier than it plays, he turns his back on us and makes an odd angle with his long arms. We know Banquo from the apple he jauntily tosses. We know he's dead when Macbeth takes a bite.

Lady Macbeth, more lively than her husband, has sex with him before the murder, quite a maneuver in a one-man show. The concept never really connects with Shakespeare's story. Oddly enough, the theatricality does.

 

WHAT "Macbeth"

WHERE Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th St., through Saturday

INFO $50-$100; 212-721-5000; lincolncenterfestival.org

BOTTOM LINE Solo bravura showcase for quality showing off

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