An eerie sense of dejá vu gripped the country during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, as again the world watched another white man rise to power despite credible allegations of sexual assault. For Pesha Rudnick, founding artistic director of Boulder’s Local Theater Company, that uncanny sense of familiarity was met with a sharp flash of anger.
“I felt all the rage from when Clarence Thomas was nominated and we ignored Anita Hill,” Rudnick says. “Our country has a history of putting women on trial and not believing them; this was a clear moment of history repeating itself, and our chance to change the story.”
This opportunity to shift the narrative came by way of UNDONE: The Lady M Project, Local’s bold reimagining of Macbeth that puts one of Shakespeare’s most powerful and famous women characters on trial.
But it’s not just Lady M (Anne Penner) on the stand in this new production running at The Savoy in Denver through March 26. Characters from Shakespeare’s original play, such as King Duncan (Matthew Schneck) and chambermaid Greer (Emelie O’Hara), appear in court at a trial that ultimately investigates our perception of powerful women.
“We felt Lady Macbeth had so much depth but didn’t have the words or stage time to tell her story,” says director and playwright Mare Trevathan. “Macbeth gets to be complicated, but Lady Macbeth is an evil manipulator. You don’t hear male politicians called Macbeth, but women in power are frequently labeled a ‘Lady Macbeth’ as an insult.”
‘Make it weirder’
When Penner and Trevathan reached out to Rudnick with the idea in 2019, she encouraged them to create a pitch for Local’s annual new play summit. After being commissioned to write the play, they read aloud every scene from Macbeth with a reference to Lady Macbeth and “created a recipe for each scene” based on the essential elements of the exchange.
The pair then created their own version of each scene combining contemporary language with the original Shakespearean text. About a month before they were supposed to present an online reading of the play in 2020, they enlisted the help of theater historian and dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck on the script, based in part on her academic research relating to women characters in Elizabethan drama.
“Mare, Hadley and Anne have been working for decades in Colorado and had this exciting vision for the shared development of a play,” says Rudnick. “I got excited about their shared leadership on the production because that allows us to double down on the shared leadership model we have implemented on the administrative side of Local.”
But when the team first presented a workshop reading of the play online in the 2020 Local Lab, audiences said it was still too much about Macbeth.
“We thought we had taken a lot of liberties with the script … turns out, we hadn’t been as irreverent as we thought,” Trevathan says. “[That] was very helpful feedback for when we revised it for the Local Lab development workshop in 2022 and its world premiere this year.”
In its current form, UNDONE: The Lady M Project is written in a mostly contemporary style with Macbeth (Orion Carrington) waiting in the wings until the show’s surprising third act in a Portland coffee shop. And though the change in setting is a bit jarring and disconnected from the play’s polished first two acts, its absurdity was part of the point for the creative team.
“The actor encouraged us to make the script weirder. If a play presents itself as weird, and this is certainly weird, then you really have to pursue that,” Penner says. “So, we pursued it through time travel and ended up in 2023 Portland.”
But as the old saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. And as Rudnick reflects on the real-world circumstances leading to the notion that her company should tell a story like this one, Local’s founding artistic director says there’s nothing strange about correcting a centuries-old imbalance like the one at the heart of UNDONE.
“The character of Lady Macbeth is even more important now after coming out of the Trump administration,” Rudnick says. “It is more important than ever to give women a voice.”
ON STAGE: UNDONE – The Lady M Project by Hadley Kamminga-Peck, Anne Penner, and Mare Trevathan. 7:30 p.m. through March 26 (2 p.m. matinée on Sunday), The Savoy, 2700 Arapahoe St., Denver. Tickets here.