Enemy fiction: Melissa Leilani Larson’s Bitter Lemon set for Plan-B Theatre’s (sort of) world premiere this week

In February, Plan-B Theatre mounted a world premiere production of Balthazar, Debora Threedy’s fresh reimagining of The Merchant of Venice’s Portia. As The Utah Review noted at the time, Threedy’s play is a well-crafted piece of fan fiction. In her two-hander script, she successfully sustained the broader integrity of Shakespeare’s literary world while reconfiguring characters and storylines with contemporary sensibilities and enlightened consciousness. In Balthazar, she brought forward the character of Bellario, who is mentioned in the Shakespearean play but never appeared on stage in the original. 

In Plan-B’s forthcoming Bitter Lemon (which opens April 11), another Utah playwright takes equally intriguing creative liberties in the Shakespearean cultural world but approaches it differently than Threedy. This time, the target is Macbeth (a/k/a The Scottish Play). Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson has written her two-hander by giving much greater presence to the character of Lady Macduff. Written in contemporary language, Bitter Lemon elevates Lady MacDuff to a fully rounded dramatic heroine, completely different from the Shakespearean version where she appears a paltry 19 times.

Show art by Aaron Asano Swenson.

Joining her in Bitter Lemon is none other than Finlay Macbeth. In a coincidence that initially horrifies Lady Macduff, both characters are in a purgatorial waiting room. In an interview with The Utah Review, Larson said that when it comes to the genre of fan fiction, she has “difficult relations to it” because there already are lots of art in the world with fulfilling stories. But, she added that she sees nothing wrong with fan fiction as an expressive outlet for someone showing their excitement for a specific piece of art.

More significant in the provenance of Bitter Lemon is that Larson wastes no time in explaining that she has never loved Macbeth, not due to its writing but to the fact that the main characters are horrible individuals. Threedy’s Balthazar is an elegant, expansive and enlightened piece of Shakespearean fan fiction, while Larson’s Bitter Lemon, to use her own words, is enemy fiction. 

Lady Macduff is conceived as a complex proto-feminist with a virtuous conscience and independent philosophical bearings. She seizes the opportunity to confront her enemy about the consequences of his deadly political orthodoxy and his power-obsessed strategic rationale. But, Larson’s script also is finely nuanced to allow the bittersweet underpinnings of the narrative to emerge, without lapsing into unalloyed portrayals. In fact, Larson’s writing sharpens simultaneously the tragic impact and the moral complexities that both characters have endured and the manner in which each processes their present circumstances while stuck in this purgatorial waiting chamber. There is a William Blake line Larson quotes before the beginning of the script that foreshadows a critical question at stake in Bitter Lemon: “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”

Melissa Leilani Larson

Plan-B’s production, directed by Jerry Rapier, is not a world premiere, in the strict definition of the term. Characterized as a “sort of” world premiere, Bitter Lemon was commissioned by the Creekside Theatre Fest based in Cedar Hills, Utah, where it premiered in June 2019. Larson wrote it as a companion piece to that company’s production of Macbeth that year.

As she recalled in a blog post for Plan-B Theatre, Jordan Long had commissioned her to write a play that the actors and audience together could discover in the moment of the actual performance. “Two actors were handed the script before they went on stage. There was no rehearsal, no explanation, no direction except for a brief character description,” Larson wrote. 

Yolanda Stange

With combinations of different actors, every performance was an entirely new experience. “It was exciting but also nerve wracking,” Larson said, adding that it was like experiencing the exhilarating combo of fear when diving from or being pushed off a cliff. 

Normally, rehearsing daily with the same actors gives everyone the opportunity to delve that much deeper into their characters and the script. “It was a very brave thing to do because it was so sudden and scary,” Larson said. With each unpredictable performance, Larson gathered what she needed to revise, enhance and polish the script, which now runs approximately 60 minutes. 

She picked up on what different actors and audiences each time were responding to as the lines were performed, and made notes about lines they struggled with as well as those that came off as self-indulgent. In one performance, it was two actors who had never met previously while in another it was a married couple or a duo that was familiar to each other in ensemble dynamics. Larson also noted how different combos handled timing and pauses, with performances running anywhere between 45 and 75 minutes.

Bobby Cody.

While some actors tried to play the script as a dark comedy, many realized that if they were pushing the comedic vibe too far, it risked going off the rails. For a piece of enemy fiction, Larson also acknowledges the absurdity of the situation in the beginning of the play. Picture Lady Macduff telling herself, “Of all the people with whom I could be trapped in a room with, I never would have imagined it would have been Macbeth.”

Now with a fully staged production with the same actors scheduled for the entire run, Larson will now have sufficient evidence to see if the experiment of this particular companion piece to The Scottish Play will have an enduring life of its own in the performing arts catalog. In Larson’s play, there is some brief rhapsodizing about the Lady Macduff’s skill in baking an Elizabethan lemon cake, which delighted Finlay. Of course, in Shakespeare’s original, Lady Macbeth used posset, an English hot beverage, to poison the guards.

The actors for Bitter Lemon are Yolanda Stange and Bobby Cody. The production team includes Victoria Bird (costume designer), Liz Whittaker (intimacy director), Emma Belnap (lighting designer), Janice Chan (scenic designer), Aaron Asano Swenson (show art), Cheryl Ann Cluff (sound designer), Taylor Wallace (stage manager) and David Knoell (scenic builder and electrician).

Larson is one of Utah’s most extensively produced playwrights, with production credits on five continents. A member of Plan’s B incubator for playwrights, The Lab, she has had four other full-length plays staged by the company, along with several contributions to other Plan-B series and productions. In addition to stagings of her work at other venues, her Pride and Prejudice play has been produced in and out of Utah. Larson’s latest work-in-progress, A Form of Flattery, is a 2023 Bay Area Playwrights Festival finalist (Top 12 Honorable Mention) as well as a Portland Center Stage JAW finalist. She also has screenwriting credits for the feature length films Jane and Emma and Freetown as well as shorts Patience and Iscariot

The production runs April 11-28, with performances in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts (Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 p.m. and Sundays,  2 p.m.). For tickets and more information, see the Plan-B Theatre website. 

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