by Everett Goldner · August 26, 2015
I’m of two minds about Lady MacBeth and her Lover. One part of me wants to applaud the deeply rooted acting I witnessed from Maja Wampuszyc, and dialogue that beat for beat has a strong sense of pulsing rhythm and tempo and destination. The other part of me wants to roll my eyes at some seriously lazy plotting from Pulitzer-nominated playwright Richard Vetere.
Without spoiling, it’s enough to say that the ending of this play is telegraphed half a football field before we reach it. And because it’s signaled so overtly, because our expectations are so wholly pointed toward something happening, you can only assume that something else is going to happen. And then we reach the finale and something else fails to happen; the thing that the show has been telling us for fifteen minutes is going to happen, happens. And the show ends. And you blink and notice that the impact of what you just saw has been cut in half for the sake of aesthetic tidiness.
In 1994, Corrine and Hope are gifted young poets in a romantic triangle. Corrine loves Hope; Hope loves Hope and more or less also loves Corrine. Hope has an eight-year old daughter she isn’t very fond of, and has already left twice to fend for herself. The poets feel insulted by Shakespeare and the way he let Lady MacBeth commit suicide offstage. The “big sleep” tempts them in the way it does for self-involved artists; they play with the idea and with each other.
Hope takes some pills, washes them down. She takes more. She sprawls out on the floor and closes her eyes. Corrine, feeling a decision she doesn’t want to touch, doesn’t touch it. She doesn’t call the hospital. Hope’s slumber becomes the big one; exeunt Lady MacBeth.
Cut to fifteen years later. Hope’s daughter Emily, an ambitious grad student, appears on Corrine’s porch. She’s a dead ringer. Corrine faints. Then she wakes up and falls in love.
The FringeNYC synopsis for this show, as well as Iron Spike’s Theatre’s own site, describe what happens next as Emily demanding that Corrine be her mentor, which is an interesting misnomer. That isn’t what happens; Corrine sees Emily’s portfolio and demands to know if she brought it for Corrine to read. Emily demurs; Corrine reads it anyway. Corrine, who has the controlled and controlling persona that so many writers do, tells Emily that they’re going to have a professional relationship. The next time they see each other, Corrine tells her that they’re going to have a personal one. “Love me or leave this house” Corrine says, the words catching in her gut as she forces them out. The raw intensity that Maja Wampuszyc, playing Corrine, achieves in these moments (she has several) reminds me of some fabulous, skeletal, withered old weeping willow tree, its boughs gone, its charms almost empty, its branches dropping to the ground in naked shame.
Emily decides to love Corrine, but Emily is 23 and beautiful, and the older woman’s attentions are never really enough. And as she tries to make her mark as a writer, she wrestles with the curse of living in Lady MacBeth’s shadow. She’s good but not great. Driven, but the words don’t come naturally, as they did to the mother who left her alone forever. So the show’s central conflict becomes Emily’s on twin points of the soul; she must fight her dead mother’s famous words and also fight her dead mother’s shallow, manipulative nature – or else decide that if she can’t have the all the glory, all the accolades, then at least she can wrap the people who want her up around her finger and spin them just to see them get dizzy.
Wampuszyc’s counterpoint onstage is Jenny Ashman, who is tasked with playing both Hope and Emily. If she doesn’t completely realize both roles, it’s hardly her fault; she has to do things that, as someone once wrote of the actress playing Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, are contradictory and probably impossible, and she deserves an award for showing up and trying. Ashman has one scene to establish herself as a brilliant, bitchy, self-centered woman who’s bored with motherhood before she has to become the daughter who will spend her life trying to live up to a ghost who may have cared nothing for her.
The conflicts I’ve described make for palpably gripping stuff; the friend I saw the show with, an actress, noted that many scenes would make for good work in a scene study class. Right up until that finale, I was totally invested in the dynamics between these two, even in a theater filled past capacity where I sometimes had to stand up to see the actresses at all.
As curtain call ended, I asked the woman seated next to me – 40ish with hard, angular, Corrine-like features – what she thought. “Too long” she declared immediately. The piece had run an hour 40 with no intermission: not long at all. But when Vetere chose to draw a circle, close it neatly and drop it instead of ending this story more honestly, he left those for whom it might have resonated the most with nothing much to say.