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Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s Stab at Macbeth Needs Sharpening:

Ambition is the name of the game in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, and thespian lore has it that productions of the play are doomed if anyone utters its title inside a theatre without subsequently performing a curse-dispelling ritual. The Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble is tackling the Bard’s most superstitiously pondered text at the Powerhouse Theatre, despite scores of tales about ill-fated productions. The show is a mixed-bag of self-conscious performances, sure-footed textual interpretations, effective lighting, costuming mishaps, sluggish pacing, and glimpses of directorial vision.

Thankfully, the group of mainly 20-something actors has a few shining stars, and the most interesting pick of the litter is cast in the title role. Alexander Pawlowski creates a Macbeth brimming with nuance. He portrays with ease and restraint all the emotional range evident in Shakespeare’s text. It is a pleasure to watch Pawlowski turn the roll over and over with subtle skill, grappling with hesitancy, guilt and bloodthirsty greed as Macbeth initially implodes and eventually explodes in his quest for power. It’s a credit to Pawlowski that he seems to genuinely feel Macbeth’s fatal trajectory every step of the way, keeping himself firmly planted in each emotional shift as it happens. The actor refuses to engage in clunky foreshadowing, but rather grounds himself in the string of turning points that lead to the final storm of violence. Unfortunately, his lady Macbeth doesn’t follow suit.

Meredith Hines is clearly a talent, a woman in love with the character of Lady Macbeth and the words of Shakespeare. Her performance, however, is so over-the-top that we never get to see the famously maniacal spouse as human. Granted, her lines are full of villainy from the start (she would slay her own nursing infant for a greater cause, says she), but the text does not necessitate full-throttle, hand-wringing nuttiness right out of the gate, which is what Hines chooses. By the time the actress arrives at one of the most famous speechifying moments in the play (“Out, damn spot!”), she’s already so shrill and beyond loony there’s nowhere to go but to an ear-shattering shriek, which just isn’t all that interesting.

Danielle Katz, on the other hand, has one of the smaller roles in the play (Third Sister of the Wyrd trio) and her performance is entirely riveting. She seems appropriately unaware of the audience and fully committed to the character, foregoing attempts to creakily dazzle theatergoers in exchange for an authentic character study.

Scenic and lighting designer, Francois-Pierre Couture, does a knock out job with the less-is-more rule. There are some creepy, half-lit moments that burst with intensity and the simple set is an excellent choice, save an overlarge table that in one scene dwarfs the actors and the action. The trio of costume designers (Priscilla Watson, Adam Rigg and, assistant designer, Tessa Drysdale) come up with a mish-mash of poorly constructed garments. They should have taken a cue from Couture about the power of simplicity in small productions. Director Jonathan Redding links his characters in relationships that resonate and ring true, but he could stand to tighten the pace of things.

At the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica, through February 14. Tickets are $25. Call 310.396.3680.

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