Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival at Mask & Wig, 310 Quince St., through Nov. 30, 569-9700


It may be (relatively) short, it may be familiar, it may be (relatively) accessible, but Shakespeare's Macbeth is notoriously difficult to pull off.

First of all there's all that supernatural gobbledygook with the cackling witches and (in this production) the goddess Hecate. Then there's all that knotted overwrought language ("The crow makes wing to the rooky wood," and lots more of that sort of thing). And, aside from the tiresome drunken porter, there's very little comedy to relieve all that murder and mayhem - so little that the odd sarcastic line here and there ("Had I three ears, I'd hear thee") brings welcome relief.

So the task would have been tough even if the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival weren't using the Mask & Wig clubhouse, a little art-deco jewel box of a theater that is oppressively cute, aggressively pictorial and uncompromisingly frontal.

Despite his best efforts to improve the sightlines and mask the decor, Hiroshi Iwasaki has designed a set that exacerbates the problem by being completely decorative and pictorial, with pointy palings and portcullises, and row after row of traverse curtains and scrims. The forced perspective of the banqueting table promises to introduce a note of expressionism, but that promise is never fulfilled.

Director Domenick Scudera's work for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival (in its previous incarnation as the Red Heel Theatre) - The Second Shepherd's Play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, The Butterfingers Angel?, and Much Ado About Nothing - has been noteworthy for its sense of style. But here the style is just too pictorial, just too conventional (all the boots and tunics of Maxine Hartswick's costumes), and just too pretty-gloomy to have any impact whatsoever.

There are a few moments of refreshing insight - when Lady Macbeth (Hana Kline) smears her husband's face with blood after she has returned the bloody daggers to Duncan's bed chamber - and a few moments of refreshing actorly truthfulness - when Macbeth (Joe Guzman), on hearing the sound of women screaming offstage, surprises himself with his own unresponsiveness; and when the virginal Malcolm (Trevor Davis) convinces Macduff that he is avaricious and rapacious.

But otherwise, this Macbeth is clumsy, dull and psychologically shallow. The kettle drums bang away. The smoke machine spews forth. The witches cackle away off stage whenever anyone dies. It's a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying youknowwhat.

-Cary M. Mazer