Berkeley Shakespeare Company hits ground running with ‘Macbeth’

Scene from the Berkeley Shakespeare production of Macbeth
Sara Leyva/Courtesy

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A theater company has been born right here in Berkeley, and it’s starting off strong. Berkeley Shakespeare Company was founded by Emily Newsome, Jennifer Gallagher and UC Berkeley alum Phillip Leyva “with the goal of producing first-rate Shakespeare productions in the Bay Area that are inclusive, thoughtful and actor-driven.” That’s exactly what they have accomplished.

Berkeley Shakespeare Company’s “Macbeth” is well-executed and incredibly intimate, and although it’s not the fanciest production around, the play is undeniably full of charm and talent. Berkeley Shakespeare Company is just getting started, but the group evidently possesses lots of potential; it will certainly be exciting to watch it grow and see what it does next.

“Macbeth” is one of William Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies and proves a strong first-choice of a production for the young company. The play tells the tale of the titular Macbeth, a valiant general of King Duncan of Scotland. One day, while walking with fellow general Banquo, Macbeth encounters three witches who present them with some extraordinary prophecies: though Macbeth will one day become king, Banquo will be happier than his friend and father a line of kings himself. After Macbeth tells his wife about the witch’s peculiar predictions, the power-hungry and headstrong Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to expedite his ascension to the throne through violent means. In typical Shakespearean style, horror and bloodshed ensue.

“Macbeth” is being performed at the Finnish Hall in Berkeley, a small venue set up with a stage, several folding chairs and a concession table. While the location isn’t the largest or the most grand, it makes possible one of the best qualities of the production: intimacy. The actors don’t need microphones to project throughout the room, and actors constantly enter, exit and perform down the aisles between the audience. The effect is one of closeness — the entire room transforms into the stage, and audience members cannot help but become enveloped in the energy exuded by play. Tenseness and emotion flood the Finnish Hall, and spectators consistently feel wrapped up in the dramatics.

The acting in “Macbeth” is also commendable. With minimal use of props and simple costumes, there is little for the play’s actors to rely on to tell the story but their own performances. The cast is obviously very passionate and each line is delivered with lots of intention and heart. Each actor puts in a lot of effort to captivate the audience, and the result is a production filled with engaging acting. Particularly impressive are the performances of Leyva as Macbeth, Gallagher as Lady Macbeth and Lauren Dunagan as Banquo. 

Leyva mellifluously performed his complicated character through stages of self-assuredness, paranoia and fear. Macbeth’s famous soliloquies were certainly done justice. Gallagher’s Lady Macbeth is wonderfully passionate and fierce, and it is a treat to watch the couple on stage together. Dunagan’s performance as Banquo is also very impressive; the scene where she plays Banquo’s ghost, tormenting Macbeth with a cold stare, is especially haunting.

The production’s greatest strength goes hand in hand with its potential for weakness — the dedication to Shakespeare. The production’s preservation of Shakespeare’s writing allows the dialogue to shine, and it is a worthy choice that warrants appreciation. That said, this rendition of “Macbeth” may best suit viewers who are already familiar with the story and fans of Shakespeare’s work. The Berkeley Shakespeare Company is sure to bring lots of delight to its target audience.

For audiences who appreciate Shakespeare’s work, extend that appreciation to the passionate people at Berkeley Shakespeare Company and watch the excellent production of “Macbeth.” Keep an eye out for the company’s following ventures, too; the ambitious group is sure to have a promising future.

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].