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Monday, October 03, 2005 | It was an inauspicious start.

Arriving at 8:02 p.m. for an 8 o’clock performance, my wife and I found ourselves joining a queue of a dozen or so other “late-comers” in the lobby of the new Potiker Theater at the La Jolla Playhouse.

As the usher snapped that “We start on time here,” we were, well, ushered through the side passages of the theater and up some steps to the balcony seats.

For the next 10 minutes, other “late-comers” arrived, looking startled and embarrassed as they stumbled down the balcony behind us.

We leaned forward in our chairs and rested our chins in our hands – the only way to get a proper view from our neck-breaking vantage point – and gradually settled into the performance of “The Scottish Play.”

It’s not that this play’s awful. That’s not the problem. But for any fans of the Playhouse, this performance is such an obvious step down in quality and style from such delights as “Jersey Boys” and “Palm Beach” that it’s hard not to dislike it.

The play’s story centers on the Northernmost Shakespeare Festival in Bannockburn, Mich. The festival, we learn, has performed the full canon of Shakespeare over its 30 years in existence. That is, the full canon with one obvious exception.

The theater’s Artistic Director Billy Neil (Peter Bartlett) has steadfastly refused to produce “Macbeth.” He refuses to allow anyone to refer to Macbeth by name, insisting instead that they call it “The Scottish Play.” He is convinced that “Macbeth” is cursed, and spends a good five minutes mincing across the stage outlining every problem that’s ever befallen a stage company stupid enough to attempt to put the play on.

A nice idea, but I was immediately put off by Bartlett’s uber-campy. His over-the-top queening is both trite and annoying, and serves to add little to his character but some comic relief for those who like to laugh at the stereotype of a gay man. This theme develops throughout the play so that Bartlett is always ridiculously over-dressed, over-sensitive and over-bitchy. It doesn’t help that the character is ridiculously over-acted.

In disagreement with Billy Neil is Jack Bonner (Jere Burns), the festival’s star actor. Bonner is a recovering alcoholic who has somehow found himself in deepest, darkest Michigan, and has been struggling for a way out for years. When Neil declares that he’s simply not going to put on “The Scottish Play,” Bonner steps in with the blessing of festival founder – and funder – Alex McConnell (John C. Vennema) and takes over the festival.

Bonner, the play’s protagonist, is likeable, but he’s overshadowed by the larger-than-life characters around him. The subtleties of his acting are lost in the mire of over-acting that follows him in every scene.

This is especially true when things start going wrong with “The Scottish Play.” With the launch of preparations for performance, the small town of Bannockburn falls into chaos. Floods, snowstorms, frogs and injuries are just some of the plagues that beset the theater as Neil cackles away and says “I told you so.”

Neil is complicit in some of the theater’s misfortunes, most notably when he drafts in Bonner’s three ex-wives to play Shakespeare’s witches.

The ex-wives bring more nonsense onto the stage. Unfortunately, their opening scene is so ridiculously overdone that it’s more embarrassing than funny and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, hanging around like a bad punchline.

As the festival’s organizers struggle over what to do with their rapidly depleting cast and plagued theater, along comes McConnell to save the day.

McConnell’s just been on a trip to Los Angeles, where he’s picked up hunky Path Sanderson (Erik Hagar), an action-hero actor from Hollywood who’s all biceps and brainlessness. Sanderson, who has never acted on stage before in his career, delivers some great lines and never once wavers from his California-beach-bum-brainless-egomaniacal persona and offers one of the only genuinely funny characters in the play.

Sanderson takes umbrage as soon as he learns Macbeth is no hero. He’s come to Michigan to repair his career from some scandal or another, and is only interested in a sort of performance detox at the Shakespeare Festival. He doesn’t want that plan upset by such vagaries as tradition or an adherence to Shakespeare’s words and so sets about rewriting and re-choreographing the entire play.

Bonner, who initially resists, is lured into the whole ploy, which involves the entire cast dressing up in tie-dyed togas and pointy hats for the witches, by Sanderson’s promise to make him a big star in Hollywood. This plot segway is utterly unconvincing, leading the audience to lose all respect for Bonner and wondering where on earth his character went.

As things get more and more ridiculous, both plays – the La Jolla Playhouse’s “Scottish Play” and the Northernmost Shakespeare Festival’s now re-named “Macbreath” (Sanderson found out about the curse and ordered the name changed) – descend into virtual chaos.

While the final production of “Macbreath” is, understandably, completely ridiculous, its execution by the Playhouse staff is also confusing and exaggerated to the point of embarrassment. There’s so much going on at one time that trying to get all the jokes going on is exasperating.

Then there’s the special effect that ends the penultimate scene and introduces the play’s finale. The scene change is like a metaphor for the entire play. After spending millions of dollars on a new black box theater with all the bells and whistles, the Playhouse artistic staff have completely failed to put the theater’s versatility to use in this production. Although there are some nods to the theater’s capabilities as a truly three-dimensional performance space, this play could just as easily have been put on at either of the Playhouse’s other two theaters.

“The Scottish Play’s” final scene unfortunately does absolutely nothing to tie together some of the play’s many plot diversions, so that when the lights went down, our audience was left stunned, unsure that the play had even ended.

My wife and I immediately stood up, cracked our necks and fled the theater.

The Scottish Play, by Lee Blessing, plays at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, through Oct 23. To purchase tickets, or for more information, go to www.lajollaplayhouse.com.

will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org

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