'Frasier' analyzes dark of 'Macbeth'

Kelsey Grammer has decided to spend his summer vacation from TV's best comedy ("Frasier") wandering onstage as one of Shakespeare's most tormented characters.

Lacing up the boots of "Macbeth" is no small step for any actor. But Mr. Grammer brings bona fides, including training at New York's Juilliard School, acting credits on Broadway and in regional theaters, and a lifelong love of Shakespeare.

Grammer's "Macbeth" is playing in Boston right now, prior to opening June 15 for an eight-week run in New York. ("Then I have to get back to that other gig I have," Grammer told a group of reporters with a smile before the Boston opening.)

"It's a very impassioned, focused, hyper-clean rendering" of "Macbeth," Grammer said. "My image [of the play] is that it's a freight train coming at you." To that end, there's no intermission. The stage is dark and nearly devoid of props or scenery. Dramatic lighting effects set the unsettling mood. The look is "sort of 'The Matrix' meets medieval times," Grammer jokes.

When the cast saw the lighting, he says, they declared the play would be NAR, "no acting required," because the lighting would do all the work.

In fact, though, plenty of acting is always required in Shakespeare, as Grammer well knows. And he knows that the tools he has to work with are the voice, face, and body that people associate with the comic bombast of "Dr. Frasier Crane," psychologist and radio host.

How does he prepare to play the murderous Scot, who's consumed in turns by ambition, deceit, terror, doubt, remorse? Grammer says calling on your own experiences won't work in this case. "I'd never say that my life is as big as Macbeth's," he says. "My imagination might be as big as Macbeth's. ... [But] I'm not as interesting as Macbeth."

So, can Grammer make audiences believe him as one of Shakespeare's most memorable villains? In a word, "yes."

Will he make them completely forget his TV alter ego? Probably not.

Director Terry Hands, a former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, gives Grammer plenty of "stand and deliver" moments, as if to say, "You know it's all about the words, Kelsey. Go to." Grammer clearly has an idea of what he wants to do with the text. But he seems to only go so far, then back off (maybe concerned that if he really let loose some unintentional aspect of "Frasier" might pop out?). His take on Macbeth? Unclear.

Grammer never seems to quite inhabit the tormented Scot. It is as if he's trying to do it all from "the neck up," something recently departed acting great John Gielgud was famously accused of.

In contrast, Diane Venora, who seems to leap with ease between film ("True Crime," "The Insider," and the just-released "Hamlet") and stage work, uses her whole body to express the fall of Lady Macbeth from ambitious schemer into regret and madness.

Grammer and the whole cast deserve credit for laughing off the tradition that says "Macbeth" is "cursed." Actors are supposed to refer to it only as "the Scottish play" to avoid trouble.

"Why give negativity that much power?" Ms. Venora said at the press gathering.

"It's always been a lucky play for me," added Grammer, who many years ago leaped from understudy to lead when the star of a production of "Macbeth" quit.

As in most Shakespeare, plenty of action - including swordplay - breaks up the declarative moments. Grammer says director Hands told him that "The play requires such focus and such concentration that accidents happen - and that's what you have to be cautious of."

In this production, the Witches are wonderful: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" they warn in the opening moments - all will not be as it seems, they foretell. The Porter provides inspired comic relief with some earthy philosophy. Macduff is noble and good, the antipode of Macbeth.

Audiences are benefited by Grammer's willingness to "scare himself" a little in front of live audiences. The production proves "the play's the thing" - no matter what is "the other gig" of any actor in it.

*Send your comments on the Arts & Leisure section to entertainment@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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