Most of the smaller independent theater companies have already kicked off their seasons, but one still remains and it's started this year off by taking a new look at the classics. --- Plan-B Theatre Company had a tremendous season last year, celebrating 20 years entertaining Utah audiences with challenging and original works from some of Utah's brightest, and that tradition continues tomorrow evening.
Plan-B will start its 21st season with the Shakespearean crossover production Lady MacBeth -- a modern side-story featuring some of Shakespeare's more unusual and tragically disposed characters, meeting along the shores of Scotland and interacting with classic themes that still ring true in current times. Today, we chat with playwright Aden Ross and director Jerry Rapier, as well as cast members Traice Merrill, Michelle Peterson and Jason Tatom about the production and the work they've put into it.
Aden Ross, Jerry Rapier, Tracie Merrill, Michelle Peterson and Jason Tatom
Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Aden: After teaching English and theater at Westminster College, USU and the U of U for over 25 years, I retired to become a full-time writer. My poetry has been published across the United States and England, and Dreamkeepers, the Utah Centennial opera for which I wrote the libretto, has been produced here and in Oklahoma. Lady MacBeth is my 25th fully produced play (Amerika was also produced by Plan-B). I grew up on the Great Plains, play the piano with passion if not accuracy and have ridden motorcycles longer than most people reading this have been alive.
Jerry: After leaving graduate school in 1999, I finally completed my MFA in directing in 2011. And my partner of nearly 16 years (Kirt Bateman, who plays Malvolio in Lady MacBeth) and I were the first gay couple from Utah to get married in New York on the day same-sex marriage became legal there, on July 24. Michelle Peterson didn't want to talk about herself so I'll tell you that she's a mother of two, is the company manager at Utah Symphony/Utah Opera, trained at Circle in the Square in New York City and is married to Richard Scott, the executive artistic director of the Grand Theatre -- oh, and she gets the giggles when her seven cast mates simultaneously poke her.
Tracie: When I moved to New York in my 20s, I had only performed a couple of small Shakespearean roles, but having done a 2-year classical degree in England, most directors thought I was proficient. I went from performing bit parts to being cast as both Kate in Taming Of The Shrew and Desdemona in Othello on a nine-month tour. Talk about having to learn on your feet.
Jason: I was born in Hawaii, grew up in Utah, and started acting in junior high. Now, as well as acting, I teach acting students at Utah Valley University.
Gavin: Aden, how did you devise the concept for Lady MacBeth?
Aden: The original version of this play, presented as a staged reading at the Utah Shakespeare Festival several years ago, was my response to the presidency of George W. Bush. I had to vent my anger and frustration somehow, and writing plays is more legal than other alternatives available to me at the time. Once I knew I wanted to satirize Bush’s jaw-dropping idiocy, it was an easy step to emulate Shakespeare, whose satire is subtler and more varied than Swift’s or Moliere’s, in my opinion.
Gavin: What was it like for you developing the play and how did you decide on which Shakespearean characters to use?
Aden: This version of the play is not merely an update, but quite a different play, especially since the political insanity has now exploded to global proportions and personally affects almost every American, one way or another. Bushworld, during which only a few inmates ran the asylum, seems almost innocent compared to the mixture of viciousness, intractability, greed and incipient chaos currently pervading the political arena. I developed each character for a very specific reason. Lady MacBeth is my portrayal of contemporary leadership in general—a dangerous mixture of power, stupidity and self-delusion. Othello is the necessary hawk, ever ready for war, mindlessly assuming that the answer to any political problem is killing it with the largest weapon at hand. Malvolio and Ophelia have always been two of my favorite underrated Shakespearean characters, in this case supplying an unexpected humanistic perspective on religion, love and personal responsibility. I have long considered Iago and Portia two of Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters and wondered what would happen if I used them to introduce the motifs of law and character transformation. Portia, of course, was perfect to embody the notion of credit default swaps and the real price of bad loans. Gertrude at first served as a foil for Lady Macbeth—another “grieving widow” and a woman ruling her country; when I made them sisters, everything else fell into place. And the Fool? Speaks for himself, literally. And, as I see it, comedy is the best revenge!
Gavin: There's a lot of criss-cross between works, including characters who inevitably die in their specific plays. What kind of challenge was it bringing all these people together while trying to stay true to the original works?
Aden: It was no challenge whatsoever bringing these eight characters together, including those who died in their respective plays, since I wasn’t trying to “stay true to Shakespeare’s intentions.” Instead, I re-imagined their lives, using them as springboards for my own ideas, and, hopefully, stayed in the spirit of their original creator.
Gavin: Could you talk about the challenges of marrying contemporary ideas with Shakepearean style?
Aden: It is utterly easy “marrying contemporary ideas” with Shakespeare, since his work truly is timeless. I do not say this lightly. He understood people, all kinds of people—from adolescent Juliet to geriatric Lear—and understood love and war and sex and power and hypocrisy and greed and abuse and lies and ... how much time do we have? Trying to suggest Shakespeare's language in a contemporary setting was a bit harder. I settled on a few conventions like opening and/or closing scenes with soliloquies, occasionally using rhymed iambic pentameter, and making the speeches of the play-within-the-play a parody of both theater and of verse. The last wasn’t difficult. That’s a joke.
Gavin: Jerry, what was it like working with this production during the Script-In-Hand Series and watching it evolve over time?
Jerry: I drove to Cedar City to attend the reading at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2004. It was angry, angry, angry but also funny, funny, funny. But Aden wasn't sure if she was going to work on it anymore. So Lady MacBeth was shelved. In the seven years since that reading, we worked on two other plays together -- one of which, Amerika, was produced by Plan-B in 2006 -- and Aden spent five years writing a novel. Her feelings about the American -- and global -- political landscape shifted and that showed up in the version we read this past March as part of Plan-B's Script-In-Hand Series. In short, the 2011 version allows room for character transformation, which the 2004 version did not. To quote Aden, it asks, ‘Is change a possibility?’
Gavin: What made you decide to bring the play on for the season and what made you choose to direct?
Jerry: Aden told me about this time last year that she needed to get back to the stage. When we started looking at her ideas for new plays and the already-written plays that had yet to be produced, it was clear to both of us that Lady MacBeth had been a lady-in-waiting long enough. Why direct it? Three reasons: I heart Aden -- her brain is much bigger than my brain. I heart comedy -- this show makes me laugh my ass off. I heart political satire -- it is the Jon Stewart Era, after all.
Gavin: For the actors, when did you first find out about the play, and what were your thoughts after reading it?
Tracie: I attended the Plan-B reading last spring, and had a blast -- such a clever and funny script! After I read the play a short time later, I was even more impressed. It's not every day that such a unique, new piece of work gets to be produced. I knew this was a production I wanted to be a part of.
Michelle: I was first approached to participate in the staged reading last spring. I immediately loved the concept when I heard about it -- Shakespeare and Aden Ross combined in one play?! And a comedy at that; what could be better. The reading was so much fun -- I was delighted to have the opportunity to experience the production.
Jason: Jerry also contacted me last year to participate in the staged reading last spring. After the initial reading, I was a little intimidated. Aden's script is so smart, I wondered if I was smart enough to be able to contribute anything to the process.
Gavin: Being actors and having some experience with Shakespeare, what was your take on seeing this type of "adaptation"?
Tracie: Probably something akin to, "How did Aden come up with this???" I was astounded at how she was able to ingeniously utilize dialogue from so many of Shakespeare's plays, sometimes as direct quotes and other times as clever bastardizations, to help tell another story altogether. Although the Shakespeare connoisseurs may get a kick out of the references, the everyday theatre-goer will also be able to follow what's going on and have a great time. I can't imagine how Aden was able to accomplish that, but hats off to her.
Michelle: It's unbelievably clever! There are segments of Shakespeare-like dialogue which is a delight to speak. Aden writes with such rhythm that I find the pattern and transition between the two styles very easy and smooth. And certainly the scope of her characters is very Shakespearean.
Jason: I was excited. As actors, and as a culture, we tend to treat certain things -- especially if they have age about them -- with a sort of reverence. But Aden asks the question, "But what happened then?" And that's just great. All these characters are given a second chance to get things right, or at least make a change. Most take advantage of that opportunity, but a couple of them keep making the same old mistakes. They can't break free from the past.
Gavin: What was getting the part like for each of you?
Tracie: An absolute gift. Even the audition process was fun and, as most actors will attest, that is not always the case.
Michelle: I love what is, for me, a departure, of being able to play a character that is a little larger than life and over the top.
Jason: Well, Jerry and Aden liked what I did in the reading enough that I was cast from that. Pretty painless, really.
Gavin: How has it been for each of you fitting into these classic characters and bringing them to life in a modern mash-up?
Tracie: I'm playing Portia from Merchant Of Venice, and one of the most challenging aspects for me has been to remember that Shakespeare's Portia can certainly inform the work that I'm doing, but at the end of the day, Aden's Portia is on a different journey, and has a new destiny to fulfill.
Michelle: I don't think you can get too hung up on what you know -- or think you know -- of these characters. It's simply a vehicle to tell a new reality in this play. I had to reflect on what my own impression of Lady Macbeth is and what her key trait or motivation is. That element is layered into the many incarnations that make up Lady M. in Aden's version. But really, all is fair game in this new reality Aden has created.
Jason: Well, the clowns have always been my favorite characters in Shakespeare's plays. They get dismissed as fools, or simply foolish, but they are the only characters looking at things objectively. This fool picks up right where he left off in King Lear. The only difference is he becomes a bit more proactive about what he wants to see happen. He's not willing to just sit back and watch as things go to hell this time. But he's not doing it for any kind of heroic, selfless reasons. He's definitely hoping to wheedle something out of it for himself. Ignore a "Fool's" advice at your own peril.
Gavin: What made you decide to go with the column-based set you're using for the play?
Jerry: I can't take any credit at all for the set design other than saying two things to Randy Rasmussen, who has designed nearly every Plan-B set since 1991: "Yes!" and "You're a genius!" What Randy has done is create a set that is his version of the love child between Shakespeare's Globe theatre and the Rose theatre -- not to be confused with the Rose Wagner. Hey, that's serendipitous, eh?
Gavin: How has it been for everyone putting this play together and bringing the production to life?
Aden: It has been utterly delightful to watch this production come together and with such a talented cast! I still laugh in rehearsals, which is really cheap for a playwright. In retrospect, I’m glad that we couldn’t find the right black man to play Othello, since I don’t want any confusion about Obama and racism. Othello is a stupid character, regardless of his race, and everyone’s referring to him as a Moor makes him even more comic.
Jerry: The actors get along beautifully and trust each other implicitly so we've done a lot of hard work sans diva fits, crying jags or anger. On top of that, Plan-B generally produces more serious works -- it's not often that we get to laugh this much in Plan-B rehearsals so we're all relishing it.
Tracie: A lot of laughing. A LOT.
Michelle: It's such a pleasure, especially with this cast, to watch how everyone is bringing their character to life and finding the balance between satire, "true" politics and theatricality.
Jason: It's been a joy. Getting to show up and work with funny, fearless and giving actors every night is a gift I don't take for granted. Don't get me wrong, it can be a difficult, frustrating process, but anything worth doing takes work. Plus, I get to try to make Kirt Bateman break every night, and that's just a win-win situation.
Gavin: What are your thoughts going into opening night?
Aden: I’m very much looking forward to opening night, but I can afford to: I merely write the lines. I don’t need to remember them, much less my blocking, my tone, my energy level, my last minute director’s notes, my heavy and suffocating costume ... again, how much time do I have to answer this?
Tracie: Please, don't let me fuck up.
Michelle: Great anticipation. I think each audience will help create an entirely different experience each performance.
Jason: I hope I get my words out in the correct order, and don't knock stuff over. But other than that, the process takes care of itself.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Aden: I plan to finish the revisions of my novel, to take a long motorcycle trip, and to reduce my possessions by half. After December, I’ll think of something else.
Tracie: Brilliance, I'm sure. That's code for "I haven't been cast in anything as of yet, but stand by."
Michelle: Getting re-acquainted with my children! As to theater ... we'll see!
Jason: Recording audio books, teaching acting, anticipating the moment the second season of Downton Abbey airs here in the States.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Aden: Plan-B Theatre in general, and Jerry Rapier in particular should be applauded for their indefatigable development and promotion of new plays. In very few cities could any playwrigh t-- much less a woman playwright -- find such support of and commitment to her work. This theater takes incredible chances and arrives at productions which are fresh and challenging, work which cannot be seen anywhere in the state. Utah and its playwrights are very, very lucky to have Plan-B and should support this theater any way they can.
Jerry: Aden, I'm blushing. I'm directing Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays on November 7; Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine at the University of Utah, opening February 3 and the world premiere of Debora Threedy's The Third Crossing at Plan-B, opening March 8. Somewhere in there I'll sleep!
Tracie: The rest of Plan-B's season. Can't go wrong.
Michelle: Utah Opera's next production, Verdi's Rigoletto, opening January 21.
Jason: My acting class at UVU!
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