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A Revival of ‘Macbeth’ with Raul Julia Opens Off-Broadway

January 18, 1990 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Any production of ″Macbeth″ with as interesting an actor as Raul Julia in the title role should be home free. The New York Shakespeare Festival’s revival, now on view at the Public Theater, is about halfway there.

The best thing about it is Julia, who plays the renegade Scottish king as a fearful monarch driven by a desire to be found out, rather than as a symbol of pure evil.

Watch his eyes. And you can in the small, tightly enclosed playing area in the Public’s Anspacher Theater. They are forever darting, never resting on one person or another. But the looks get more steely, more crazed as the killings go on, and Macbeth tries to consolidate his power.

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Julia negotiates the big soliloquies - and this play is chock full of them - with skill. His voice is strong, resonant; his manner thoughtful. There’s even a hint of dark humor as he gradually gets caught up in the bloodletting and accepts it as inevitable.

But he has little rapport with Melinda Mullins, a disappointment as Lady Macbeth. She’s supposed to be the instigator, the cheering section leading Macbeth on to those terrible deeds. But her support and cajoling is more shrewish than savage. And she has a tendency to become strident in the play’s most emotional moments.

Richard Jordan’s straightforward direction is workman-like, almost tentative. Still, there are some striking moments. Banquo’s ghost is a quite literal apparition - a walking zombie doused in blood. And when Macduff learns about the death of his wife and children, he pulls a hood over his head in grief.

But other moments don’t quite work. The three witches are reduced to a cackling Greek chorus which sporadically watches the action from behind a long wooden fence. The battle scenes are strenuously athletic. In fact, they are so exuberant and freewheeling that you fear for theatergoers sitting in the front rows.

Most of the supporting cast is strong, particularly Larry Bryggman as the doomed Banquo, Thomas Gibson as a boyish, eager Malcolm and William Converse- Roberts as the passionate Macduff.

″Macbeth″ is Shakespeare’s most desolate play, a bleak rumination on the nature of evil. You won’t be surprised or startled by the production. But there’s always Julia’s intelligence at work to keep you absorbed. He makes that evil seem very human indeed.

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Playwright Charles Fuller has staked a claim to a large segment of black history in ″We,″ the collective title for his ambitious five-play project set in the last half of 19th-century America.

Fuller’s third effort in the series, entitled ″Jonquil,″ arrived over the weekend under the auspices of the Negro Ensemble Company at off-Broadway’s Theater Four. ″Jonquil″ is the best so far, more dramatic and coherent than its predecessors, although it retains their episodic nature. Still, one longs for more character development.

In the play, set in South Carolina right after the Civil War, Fuller deals with efforts by former slaves to exercise their hard-earned right to vote. The title character is a blind black woman who still works for a white family. But most of the action concerns Calvin, a fledgling black politician who preaches a policy of passivity, and his wife Sally.

You don’t need to have seen the first two plays in the series, ″Sally″ and ″Prince,″ to fully appreciate ″Jonquil,″ but it helps. This third play is riddled with references to people in the earlier works.

The direction by Douglas Turner Ward is equally sketchy. The actors try to fill in the blanks but have little material to work with. Only Iris Little as Sally manages to create a flesh and blood character during this bare bones evening.