There will be blood (and a few mosquitoes)

By D. A. Blackburn

The record books will likely remember the summer of 2009 as one Metro Detroit's coldest, but the unseasonable chill that seems to have lingered through July has done nothing to cool passions at the Water Works Theatre Company. Last week, with the scent of bug spray heavy in the air and patrons wrapped in blankets, they embarked on their ninth annual Shakespeare in the Park with a fresh production of "Macbeth." For audiences, the experience was a solid reminder that the Bard is best heard outdoors.

Nestled among the trees of Royal Oak's Starr Jaycee Park, the company has built a suitable venue for such an endeavor, with a simple, but efficient stage for one of Shakespeare's best-loved tragedies. Often called "the Scottish play" in theater circles - owing to a perceived curse - "Macbeth" is easily one of the playwright's most potent dramas - a tale charged with deceit, murder and madness.

It is a play that requires a formidable cast, in numbers and in talent, and Water Works has assembled a fine ensemble in both respects.

The company's artistic director, Jeff Thomakos, appears in the play's title role, and though Saturday night he got off to a shaky start, he found his stride as Macbeth descended into madness - his performance improving as his character's intensity built.

The role of Lady Macbeth marks a superb return to the stage for Aphrodite Nikolovski, who capably navigates the dichotomy of scheming murderess turned guilt-stricken madwoman. Stephen Blackwell's Banquo is likewise superb, played with the type of endearing charm that makes an audience resent his character's untimely death.

But it's Michael Brian Ogden's Macduff that leaves the strongest impression. His grief upon learning of his family's massacre is without doubt the emotional zenith of Water Works' production, owing entirely to Ogden's ability to convey the pain of such a loss. Ogden also doubles as fight choreographer for the production, and his work in this capacity, in the final moments of Macbeth's life, is exceptional.

Director Sara Catheryn Wolf makes a strong showing with thoughtful use of the stage, and more notably, the space surrounding it, which is all fair game for entrances and exits. She's also opted for a very judicious use of "blood" - a prominent element in "Macbeth" - making its limited appearance very effective.

The production, however, is not without a few minor issues.

The show's amplification is perhaps the biggest - equally likely to pick up ambient noise and the breeze, as the performers. But this is one of the pitfalls of performing outdoors, and as such, is easily forgivable.

Harder to dismiss are the production's costumes (Katie Casebolt) and properties (Don Hunter), which are creative, but not entirely well-conceived. Soldiers carry firearms and are dressed in jungle camouflage, which does little to the play - for good or ill - but seems an odd juxtaposition against more traditionally costumed witches.

These issues aside, the overall experience is one of the most unique and enjoyable theatrical opportunities around. And this critic would be remiss to neglect mentioning the many folks behind the scenes at Water Works. After nine years, they've planned for every contingency (excepting rain) that comes with performing under the stars - even passing out bug spray and blankets - making outdoor theater a magical experience on a cool July night.



Water Works Theatre Company, Starr Jaycee Park, 1101 W. 13 Mile Rd., Royal Oak. Thursday - Sunday through Aug. 9. $15.

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