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Produced by the Shakespeare Theater at the Lansburgh Theater to November 5

The Plough and the Stars

By Sean O’Casey

Directed by Kyle Donnelly

At Arena’s Fichandler Stage to October 15

Maybe it’s me. Bosnia’s getting bombed to smithereens, Irish peace talks are stalemating, and Rwandan refugee camps are filled to bursting, yet our leading repertory houses mount tales of wartime horror—Macbeth at Shakespeare Theater and The Plough and the Stars at Arena Stage—that leave me feeling nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. I can muster a certain admiration for technical proficiency. Director Joe Dowling opens Macbeth with a wordless two-minute battle that fulfills every Elizabethan dictate about grabbing patrons by the scruff of the neck and making them forget the bear-baiting they might otherwise have attended. Ming Cho Lee’s setting—lit by a vertical strip of fluorescent tubing and occupied only by a corpse hanging upside-down from a branch—looks at first like the inside of some huge freezer that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. Then doors fly open, soldiers hurtle through them, and a shift in lighting makes the walls bleed as Stacy Keach’s wild-eyed Macbeth litters the battlefield with carcasses. When the tumult quiets, three witches emerge from a tangle of bodies, ascend a blood-soaked tree, and watch as Scotland’s King Duncan heaps honors on the man who will soon slaughter him in his sleep. Later (with help from a strobe effect of which Dowling proves overfond), the witches turn into birds, or maybe bats, and fly away.

Attention-getting? You bet. But Macbeth isn’t just a horror show, it’s the tale of a noble soldier swept up by ambition and destroyed by conscience. Somewhere in all the pyrotechnics, his nobility—and consequently, the play’s emotional through-line—gets short-circuited. By introducing Keach’s Macbeth in frenzied blood-lust on the battlefield, Dowling gets the evening off to a rip-roaring start, but leaves his hero with nowhere to go. And the rest of the evening is similarly pitched, with artfully staged mayhem overshadowing all but the most ferocious feelings.

In fairness, note that this mayhem is legitimately arresting except for the sword fights, which get old after a while. Macbeth‘s dozen-or-so murders always pose a freshness challenge for directors, and Dowling rises to the occasion with a parade of stabbings, garrottings, and neck-snappings that’s as ghoulish as it is varied. He renders the slaughter of Macduff’s family especially grisly by letting us see only the spatter of blood on a freshly laundered sheet when Caitlin O’Connell’s fiercely protective Lady Macduff is stabbed, then calling for a discreet blackout as three thugs converge on the tiniest of her children, as if to suggest that even amid so much devastation, some things are too ghastly to show an audience.

The evening’s chief problem is that in order to compete with all the red stuff getting spilled, the actors’ passions must often turn purplish. Howls of pain are extended until they become exercises in breath control, courtiers rush around as if urgency were a matter of aerobics, and even the best performances tend toward overemphasis. Helen Carey’s Lady Macbeth reads her very first lines with so much acid that any “milk of human kindness” in her husband’s nature is bound to curdle before the audience has a chance to taste it. And Keach has been instructed to hurl himself with such furious force into some scenes—notably his second encounter with the witches—that he has to shift gears just to be able to utter his lines.

Performers more notable for restraint are Edward Gero as an intensely thoughtful Banquo, Wallace Acton as a doctor who’s quietly unnerved by his addled queen, and Jack Ryland as a courtly King Duncan. Matthew Rauch is also effective as callow Prince Malcolm, his portrayal of a son suspected of patricide aided perhaps by his physical resemblance to one of the Menendez brothers.

Most of the evening’s other grace notes are visual, from the pinkish trace of blood on the flooring behind Macbeth’s throne to a single bloom’s crimson-edged petals in a vaseful of white roses on a banquet table. If the Bard’s emotional flourishes were being tendered half so delicately, Dowling would have the tour de force he so strenuously courts.

At Arena, Kyle Donnelly stages The Plough and the Stars—Sean O’Casey’s chronicle of some early skirmishes in the Troubles that plague Ireland—with a down-to-earthiness that should imbue the production with loads of contemporary resonance. Instead, the play comes across as a period piece, and an oddly unaffecting one, despite mostly fine performances.

Set in late 1915 and early 1916, Plough takes theatergoers to a decrepit Dublin tenement where newlyweds Jack and Nora Clitheroe (Bill Mondy and Ellen Karas) engage in minor but telling squabbles with flatmates and neighbors. The men in this impoverished neighborhood tend to be dreamers and fools (especially about political matters), while the women are grounded and pragmatic. So when Jack is called up to head a small contingent in a “citizens’ army” for the ill-starred Easter rebellion, there’s hell to pay.

Nora goes ballistic, rightly fearing the Brits will be more than a match for the untrained, practically unarmed recruits Jack’s leading into battle. Upstairs neighbor Bessie Burgess (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) hurls epithets out the window until the shooting starts, then heads out to loot shattered storefronts. Mrs. Gogan (Tana Hicken), who’s the sort of crone who could read messages of death and destruction in the icing swirls on a birthday cake, exults as her downbeat view of the world is finally taken seriously. The men, meanwhile, temporarily put aside their differences to go looking for liquor and excitement and find both in larger amounts than they expected.

As the bullets fly closer, O’Casey’s script ties itself in knots trying to show what it’s like to be at ground zero when a society implodes, but there’s a good deal of honest feeling to the play. And since Arena’s performers are working competently to create substantial, idiosyncratic characters—Jarlath Conroy’s intermittently on-the-wagon carpenter being a particular joy—it’s hard to account for the distancing effect of the last few scenes.

Little irritations crop up here and there. The accents (particularly the British ones) are as scattershot as the gunfire that Ron Ursano’s sound design fails to make immediate, but surely the sound of the production isn’t the problem. And its look is a major asset, with Rita Pietraszek’s purposefully drab, shadow-filled lighting and the increasingly broken floorboards at the edges of Michael Philippi’s setting serving to isolate the characters as the evening goes on.

More problematic is that some of the characters seem isolated from each other as much as from the outside world. Karas and Mondy don’t strike many romantic sparks in their early scenes, which means it’s hard to get worked up over their separation no matter how hysterical everyone gets in the play’s final moments. And while the characters’ war-torn circumstances certainly justify that hysteria, as Donnelly and her company crank up the emotional heat, their tragedy starts to feel as “theatrical” as that of the Shakespeare Theater’s Macbeth. In both productions, so many tears are spilt on stage that audiences may well conclude that joining in is superfluous.