Staging a Shakespeare play always presents daunting challenges, but director Jonathan Epstein must have faced more than his share when he took on "Macbeth" for the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
Most obviously, his cast is necessarily all students. They're all great student actors, but even a lot of solid professionals have trouble with Shakespeare.
Besides that, Epstein was limited to 12 actors -- the second-year conservatory students -- so he had to amend the play to accommodate that restriction. He has some actors playing more than one role, and he's combined some minor characters so one actor can play them.
That also meant that only eight men could audition for Macbeth, and only four women for Lady Macbeth, both of which are famous and deeply complex roles.
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Given all that, "Macbeth," which runs through March 13, turns out to be admirable, if not entirely successful.
Epstein's direction is lively and inventive. The set consists mostly of fabric panels, about eight feet tall and on wheels, that the cast members maneuver to create walls and spaces. Epstein lets us see some of the action, notably some of the most violent scenes, only as shadows projected onto the panels, and the effect is sometimes chilling. (The beheading scene made people in the audience gasp, even though almost all of them knew it was coming.) There's also some credible sword fighting.
Epstein has made the relationship between Macbeth (Brett Mack) and Lady Macbeth (Danielle Renella), blatantly lusty. It's not the usual take on the characters, but it works so well you wonder why it isn't standard.
Overall, though, the acting just isn't what you'd hope for. Mack and Renella both have some fine moments, but they both also resort to histrionics at times. Some of the other actors are just kind of flat. None of them are bad, but few are great. Jacob Sherburne as Seyton is one of the best, with a mastery of both the meaning and the poetry of the Shakespearean language.
The lackluster performances keep "Macbeth" from being the powerfully emotional experience it's meant to be. But it's worthwhile for anyone who loves to see Shakespeare on stage and who appreciates imaginative direction of familiar material.
Details: Through March 13, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $28 matinee, $29 evening. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.