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Star-studded ‘Macbeth’ never fires up

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Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand appear in “Macbeth” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy kevinberne.com)

The new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of “Macbeth” opens on a particularly bleak scene – a blasted tree on a barren heath, with a bloodied body tied to it. With the three Witches of Shakespeare’s tragedy circling, a savage, supernatural force rips the tree up by the roots.

It’s a potent image, and, sadly, nothing else in director Daniel Sullivan’s production quite comes close to it. Although Sullivan proves skilled at putting the play across with clarity — no small feat — the raw power that fuels this timeless tale of murder and madness is mostly in short supply.

This “Macbeth” is one of the season’s most hotly anticipated productions, chiefly because of its leads: Conleth Hill in the title role, and Frances McDormand, who, in an interesting bit of casting, plays both Lady Macbeth and one of those Witches.

Hill, best known as Lord Varys on “Game of Thrones,” is an articulate Macbeth, but his performance suggests a middle-management type in over his head; his great soliloquies especially lack gravitas. The character’s “vaulting ambition,” and his fierce prowess as a warrior — described in detail in the play’s first scene — barely register.

McDormand – a Tony, Oscar, and Emmy award winner – makes Lady Macbeth a dutiful wife. For much of the opening night performance, her portrayal felt a bit recessive, never fully commanding the stage until her final mad scene.

Sullivan fills out the cast with capable performances. Christopher Innvar, the production’s vigorous Banquo, doubles as Siward, while James Carpenter — one of the Bay Area’s finest Shakespearean actors — does a deft triple turn as King Duncan, the drunken Porter and the Doctor.

Korey Jackson plays Macduff with understated eloquence. Rami Magron and Mia Tagano, along with McDormand, limn the Witches’ scenes with synchronized movement.

For the most part, this “Macbeth” benefits from Sullivan’s striking stage pictures. Scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt and lighting by Pat Collins feature dense, fog-swept exteriors and clammy-feeling spaces inside the Macbeths’ castle. Meg Neville’s costumes would be at home on “Game of Thrones.”

But not everything works. Video by Alexander V. Nichols lends the production depth, but the outsize projections in the Banquet scene are simply distracting.

Dan Moses Schreier’s musical score and sound design supply an effective layer of otherworldly chill, although the repeated use of bird cries begins to border on parody.

The play should be the thing, but alongside the underwhelming performances by Hill and McDormand, the designs often threaten to swallow this “Macbeth” whole.

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Most Tuesdays through Sundays; closes April 10
Tickets: $35 to $145
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org