SALT LAKE CITY — I have always wanted to attend the Script in Hand series at Plan-B, and was lucky enough to be able attend a staged reading of Aden Ross’s new play Lady Macbeth at Plan-B, with Jerry Rapier directing an ensemble consisting of some of the finest actors working in Salt Lake today. Each character in the play is a major figure in Shakespearean lore, and Ross brings them together in unexpected ways, at the same time following the pattern of some of Shakespeare’s comedies.
The play takes place at the Scottish court soon after the death of King Macbeth, and his widow, the titular Lady Macbeth (Michelle Peterson) now Queen of Scotland, is making plans with her Fool (Jason Tatom) to invade England. Othello, the legendary Moor of Venice (Carleton Bluford) and his former nemesis Iago (John Graham) both arrive in Scotland, though neither is aware of the other’s presence. Othello wows the ladies at court while Iago wanders through the forest and meets a cross-dressing woman named Portia (J.J. Peeler) who is searching for her love. Discovering a chest filled with props and costumes, Iago dresses as a woman and accompanies Portia (now the man Portis) on her journey to court. Mistaken by the Fool for the traveling players whose costumes they’ve borrowed, Iago and Portia find themselves cast in the Fool’s great opus about his mistress.
Also at court are Lady Macbeth’s sister, Queen Gertrude (Christy Summerhays) as well as her lady-in-waiting Ophelia (Lauren Noll) who both somehow survive the tragedy of Hamlet; along with them is Gertrude’s spiritual advisor, the Puritan Malvolio (Kirt Bateman). First drawn to Portia when she is masquerading as Portis, Ophelia is saved from a suicide attempt by the much maligned Malvolio, and the two strike up an unlikely relationship, which ends up being, in my opinion, the strongest in the piece.
At the same time that it is an homage to Shakespeare’s canon, the play also has a particular political message, aligning a malaprop-spouting Lady Macbeth with a tongue-tied George W. Bush. This particular choice didn’t sit well with me, though, and not for political reasons, but because the Lady Macbeth in this play, while funny and ridiculous, shared little with her namesake. The infamous Lady M. is a steely and conniving villain; some have made the argument that she is more driven by ambition than her husband. Ross’s Lady M., while charmingly performed by Michelle Peterson, struck me as a completely different character: bumbling, inane, and pretentious.
Ross’s play is, overall, a comedy, it’s true; but other characters do possess strong remnants of their other Shakespearean selves, so I was surprised when Lady M. did not. Malvolio, for example, feels like a changed, humbled facet of his Twelfth Night personality; I had the impression he was collecting himself after a recent heartbreak. Portia, Gertrude, and the Fool seem very much themselves, if misplaced, while Othello is presented as a womanizing buffoon, slow of tongue but quick with his blade. Ophelia and Iago presented the most interesting changes in character for me; though they are both different than they are in their respective original plays — Ophelia seizes upon her independence while Iago has the chance to be a good “girl” — the choices Ross makes for them seem to grow organically out of who they could have been.
Also, while Lady M. is the title character, I don’t think she is the protagonist. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, Ross’s play is very much an ensemble piece. However, while the play begins with Lady M. she quickly disappears, and for quite some time; she doesn’t have an arc to carry me through to the end. While Shakespeare’s plays do have strong ensembles, there is always a main character to guide us through the action, and I missed that element here. Things happen very quickly, and I didn’t have a chance to connect with many of the characters, or to care about their wants.
I think Ross must have had a ball writing this play. Lady Macbeth has silly rulers, brilliant fools, cross-dressing, mistaken identities, near-death experiences and a play within a play. Ross uses all of these favorite Shakespearean devices to her full advantage, packing in quotes, puns and jokes that can be enjoyed by both the Shakespearean expert and novice. The actors were having a grand time, and their performances were full, bright and engaging. However, I felt the devices won out over the story they were portraying, and occasionally the jokes are tacked on; I got the impression the playwright just didn’t want to let any of them go.
Lady Macbeth is on its way to production, and I think it will be a fun evening, particularly if performed by a cast as winning as this one was. I look forward to future installments of the Script in Hand series. Kudos to Plan-B for continuing to support new work, and for making it so accessible to the public.