Fair is foul and foul is fair in "Macbeth" at A Noise Within. William Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy of lethal ambition receives an emphatically respectable albeit uneven production.
Director Larry Carpenter inventively steers the keenly trimmed text about the venue in search of how evil corrupts initially decent people. Namely, the titular general (Elijah Alexander), his outcome foreshadowed in the bloody sack hanging over designer Susan Gratch's starkly evocative set.
Enter the asexual witches (Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb), whom costumer Jenny Foldenauer dresses as modern-dance refugees from "American Horror Story." Macbeth and Banquo (Leith Burke) arrive in bare-chested "300" mode. With the advent of Lady Macbeth (Jules Willcox), we have a couple whose mutual passion masks wildly conflicting energies, he edgily conscientious, she anything but.
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The production is certainly atmospheric, with assets in Cricket S. Myers' sound, Sean T. Cawelti's puppets and Gratch's lighting. Each victim, from King Duncan (Matt Orduña) onward, reappears as white-faced silent revenant, an effective motif, and there's considerable dark humor -- Troubies apart, this may be the first "Macbeth" in our experience to mine laughs from the banquet scene.
What's missing is the undiluted downward spiral into horror. Everyone gives it their all, with David DeSantos' resonant Macduff the head of a rending family (Katie Pelensky and Theo Taplitz), but the frissons come and go, in competition with the stagecraft.
Nor do the central pair's crisscrossing aspects fully sustain. Willcox's guilty descent builds to a riveting sleepwalking sequence, whereas Alexander's conversational word-pointing just misses the equivalent degree of desperate bravado.
Admittedly, it's a famously cursed, ever-daunting property. If this accessible, layman-friendly take is variable in parts, its net effect is never less than intriguing.
"Macbeth," A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Runs in repertory; see website for schedule. Ends May 11. $34 and up. (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.