Regulars and Shorts

Theatre: Lady Macbeth

By Jerry Rapier

A comic mash-up of Shakespearean proportions.

In 2004, Aden Ross’s play Lady Macbeth was workshopped and received three public readings as part of Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project. I drove down to Cedar City to see the final reading. It was hilarious but, boy, was it angry!

Aden, like many Americans, was a few degrees beyond angry with then-President George W. Bush and dismayed at the possibility of his re-election. She felt desperate and needed to do something. So she wrote a play with a central character who was “too stupid to come up with her own malapropisms,” a kind of lovechild of Bush and Mrs. Mala­prop (from R.B. Sheridan’s 1775 comedy of manners, The Rivals). The script was chaotic—“more angry than structured”—with a lot of “mean humor.” After the readings in Cedar City, she said to herself, “Okay, I’ve got that out of my system.”

Aden has since grown less partisan in her desperation, realizing that the political machine itself is the problem in a nation hell-bent on polarity rather than unity. “For me, there was so much hope in Obama’s election. But now I am completely hopeless about America’s political system as it stands. The Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama machine. We’re almost at civil war. There’s no discourse—it’s us vs. them. But we’re all in the same leaky boat,” she muses. “The most dangerous attitude is the cutting off of ideas. The worst sedition is silence.”

So what good is writing a play? “We need an avenue to express our anger, fear, desperation. Theatre is politics. And politics is theatre.”

In January 2011, Aden confessed to me, “I really need to get back to the stage.” She’d been consumed with writing a novel for several years. I had thought about Lady Macbeth many times since 2004 and was thrilled to talk to her about producing it. We attacked it full-force with a new draft and a workshop last April. Aden laughs, “Having taught Shakespeare to college students for over 25 years, I should have remembered that he always gets it right!”

Aden Ross’ Lady Macbeth, premiering October 27-November 6 at Plan-B Theatre company, employs the Shakespearean themes of the causes and effects of civil war, the contemplation of what makes a good ruler, variations on sexual and political power, the possibilities of redemption or character conversion, theatre as politics and vice versa, the power of love and family, the frightening power of (bad) advisors, and occasional jabs at Providence (Who is in charge? Fate? Fortuna?).

The 2011 version allows room for character transformation, which the 2004 version did not. It asks, ‘Is change a possibility?’ and offers hope through comedy because, as Aden sees it, “Comedy is the best revenge.”

Lady Macbeth and her sister, Queen Gertrude of Denmark, have both been widowed recently under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile, Iago is wandering Birnam Wood in disguise, where he meets Portia, also in disguise; together they spy on Othello, a soldier of fortune whose ship has just been wrecked on the shores of Scotland. Malvolio and Ophelia, members of Gertrude’s court, add to the confusion of mistaken identities, gender-bending cross-dressing, twins separated at birth, near-death experiences, unexpected reunions and, of course, a play within a play.

I asked Aden to give us a guide to the Shakespearean characters she’s hijacked for her own use:

Lady Macbeth: I wanted a ruler who was also crazy, just like George W. Bush, and I wanted a female lead. I added Bush’s malapropisms, which increased Lady Macbeth’s stupidity and scariness proportionally.

Othello: I needed a hawk, a warmonger and a sexually attractive leader to counterbalance Lady Mac. It also helps that I find Othello consummately stupid (or at least, lacking self-awareness) and hate him so very, very much.

Portia: I have always adored her, with the caveat that she should have found someone like Prince Hal, not Bassanio. She’s smarter than she seems in The Merchant of Venice.

Iago: I find him to be one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters and agree that he is one of his greatest villains. So, I thought, to dramatize the idea of redemption, why not tackle the most unredeemed and unredeemable of all?

Malvolio: I always felt he was treated very badly in Twelfth Night —he got such a raw deal!—and I wanted to give him a second chance. I had a lot of fun climbing into his character to ask him why he behaved so pompously.

Ophelia: Likewise, I think she got a raw deal, more the fate of operatic heroines, and wanted her to say what was really on her mind. When she told me, I was pretty delighted.

Gertrude: I think Gertrude lied to herself most of the way through Hamlet, so she intrigued me; and I needed a wild, connecting link at the end.

The Fool: I always love the raconteurs and fools in any play, but particularly in Shakespeare. I modeled this Fool mostly on the one in King Lear.

Actress Michelle Peterson, who has previously created roles in two of Aden’s plays (K-Mille and FF: The Brontes), is relishing sinking her teeth into the title character of Lady Macbeth. “I find Aden’s female characters intriguing; while extremely strong in nature, they also show deep vulnerability. I love her generosity toward actors.”

Donna Land, former general manager at KRCL, calls Aden Ross one of her (s)heroes: “Aden is determined to put truth in her writing with a sense of humor.”

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. For theatre is politics. And all politics is theatre.

Jerry Rapier is the producing director for Plan-B Theatre and the director of Lady Macbeth. CATALYST is a sponsor of Plan-B’s 2010-2011 season.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2011.