Ethan Hawke's Macbeth at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center is always a marvelous place to see a show in New York City. Its Vivian Beaumont Theater is spectacular, with its stadium seating and thrust stage, offering the producers of the new production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth many options for creativity. The "Scottish Play" has long been one of my favorites, so I was excited to catch this latest version starring Ethan Hawke.  The production had many exceptionally strong elements, but was hindered by some glaring weaknesses.

The design of the show was its greatest strength, with dramatic lighting by Japhy Weideman, smooth and often stunning transitions of the remarkable set by Scott Pask, and hanging drapes that served as screens for incidental projections by Jeff Sugg. The floor of the stage was etched with a subtle yet extremely effective pentagram design, an historic mandela from the Middle Ages called "The Seal of God's Truth," boosted with overlaying beams of light and reflected on the towering walls by slashes that evoked the clashing swords I wish I'd seen more of by the performers. Historically, the seal represented good fortune, but culturally we also associate the pentagram shape with the occult, which fits in nicely with the nightmarish tone of this play.

The Weird Sisters, daringly played by Byron Jennings, John Glover, and Malcolm Gets, were the highlight of the play, delivering truly inspired performances. Casting men in the roles fits the text ("You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.") They double their roles magnificently, interweaving seamlessly through the entire plot. Even Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, whose scene is often cut from many productions of the play, works amazingly well here, portrayed magnificently by Francesca Faridany.

The trouble lies in believing the primary character is a war hero who falls into the trappings of power-madness, killing his way to the top as he struggles with his conscience. Hawke is an amazing, hardworking actor, but he brought too many strange and distracting histrionics to the part as he progressed into darkness, rushing through many of his famous soliloquys.

The arc of the character is the heart of the story, seeing this hero become a villain, an initially likable man full of potential who embraces the temptations of evil and sees the world around him crumble as a result. The director, Jack O'Brien, has stated that having a likable actor such as Hawke was helpful to make the audience see the journey of the tragic soldier who becomes a noble lord and then a king, adding more and more heinous sins to achieve those blood-tainted titles of power; but we never fully see that early heroism, nor do we totally believe it. The script is altered a bit -- the classic line "Something wicked this way comes," heralding the approach of Macbeth, is moved to Act II, trying to draw attention to his downward spiral by that point, but losing the impact of having it at the beginning as a contrast to this seeming hero, a hint that the seeds of evil ambition already exist within him.

Hawke never made me fully believe that he was an unparalleled hero on the battlefield. The fight choreography was surprisingly under-par, almost laughable at times, completely ruining the illusion that these were war-scarred combatants in the aftermath of epic battles.

Only Macduff, brought to life by Daniel Sunjata, conveyed a believable sense that this was a soldier, a battle-weary fighter who breaks down in probably my favorite scene when he discovers that his family has been slaughtered at the command of Macbeth. He delivers his lines with all the anger, heartbreak, and guilt that the Bard intended when told to fight it and avenge it like a man, "I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man. I cannot but remember such things were that were most precious to me. Did heaven look on, and would not take their part? Sinful Macduff, they were all struck for thee!"

Ann-Marie Duff was fine as Lady Macbeth, one of the greatest characters ever written, seemingly the backbone of the marriage, pushing her husband to commit to the foul deed at hand, but then slipping into madness in the aftermath of their crime. Some others in the cast who were competent, if not necessarily breaking any new ground, were Brian D'Arcy James as Banquo, Richard Easton as Duncan, and Bianca Amato as Lady Macduff.

Macbeth is hot right now, recently performed by Alan Cumming, and now by Ethan Hawke.  If you're still not satisfied, wait a little while, because another stage production is coming up, this time starring Kenneth Branagh.