Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson on creating ‘BITTER LEMON’

BY MELISSA LEILANI LARSON

Mel is a mixed-race Filipino writer based in Salt Lake City  whose award-winning work has been seen on five continents. Her previous work at Plan-B includes MESTIZA, or MIXED, THE POST OFFICE, THE EDIBLE COMPLEX, PILOT PROGRAM, the monologues "Gluten" and "Erasers" as part of (IN)DIVISIBLE and "Little Karl" as part of RADIO SLAM, and the Script-in-Hand Series reading of MOUNTAIN LAW. She is proud to be a part of Plan-B’s THE LAB.

Mel’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE has been seen recently at Hale Center Theater Orem, Wayne Theatre, Inspire Theatre, Creekside Theatre Fest, the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and the Grand Theatre (coming in May 2024), and heard on Dramafy.com. Other recent productions include RELATIVE SPACE at Creekside Theatre Fest, GIN MUMMY at Utah Valley University, SWEETHEART COME (O’Neill semi-finalist) at Tabor College and PYGmalion Theatre Company; and readings of MESTIZA, or MIXED at American Stage, MOUNTAIN LAW at Mad Cow Theatre, and LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS at Brick Theatre Company. 

Mel’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.

Film: JANE AND EMMA, FREETOWN, and the shorts “Patience” and “Iscariot.” MFA, Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

I have never loved MACBETH. Can I say that aloud, as a theatre person? Is it allowed? Too late, Mel. Too late.

I can appreciate the writing, sure, but the characters are not my favorite. Lord and Lady Macbeth are horrible people. Sure, they get what’s coming to them (sorry, #spoilers) but you have to wait through all their scheming and murdering before their comeuppance finally arrives.

I have always wondered why MACBETH is labeled a tragedy. Is it tragic? I mean, sure, Macbeth is overwhelmed by his ambition. But he is a villain; don’t we want him to be defeated by someone less terrible? Audiences, though, seem to love a good anti-hero—a troubled protagonist who does terrible things yet asks us to empathize with their humanity.

Does BITTER LEMON count as fan fiction? It’s an interesting question. A lot of fan fiction comes from a place of love. We get attached to characters we care about, and we want to see more stories about them.

The problem is that I’m not really a fan of the character Macbeth. But here I am, writing a play about him that some might call fan fiction. Is it fan fiction if you’re not a fan? Is there such a thing as enemy fiction?

Macbeth makes me angry. I disagree with his actions and his motives. I don’t want him to succeed. Those feelings led me to write a play in which Macbeth has to face his crimes and can’t escape them.

So yes—I guess BITTER LEMON counts as enemy fiction!

THE SCOTTISH PLAY (see, I am a theatre person) is loosely based in history. And as is often the case when it comes to major historical figures, I’m much more interested in the smaller, lesser known folk who litter the background.

Lady Macduff is one such character. She speaks a total of 19 times in the play. That’s it. But unlike Macbeth, she has my total sympathy. Why? Despite her stage time being severely limited, Shakespeare gives Lady Macduff fire. She is angry at her husband for leaving her behind, she is angry at Macbeth for causing her husband to flee, and she is desperate to protect her children. Her single scene is packed with energy and tension, and it would be correctly labeled a tragedy. If you did not believe Macbeth was horrible before, you will after Lady Macduff leaves the stage.

I have always wondered, "What would happen if Lady Macduff had her say?"

In early 2019, my friend Jordan Long had an idea. He had started a summer theatre festival in Cedar Hills, the Creekside Theatre Fest, and wanted to do new work alongside Shakespeare. Jordan asked me to write a play that the actors could discover alongside the audience. 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. Each performance was a different experience. Some pairings knew each other while others met on stage for the first time. It was a theatrical adventure.

Creekside’s mainstage that summer was THE SCOTTISH PLAY, so I decided to write a play that could serve as a companion piece. I saw my opportunity to give Lady Macduff center stage. BITTER LEMON was the result.

Now, thanks to my friends at Plan-B, we are trying a new experiment with BITTER LEMON: What happens if we rehearse it? Anticipating a full production, I made adjustments to the script; for example, because our actors (the lovely Yolanda Stange and Bobby Cody) are informed of what the story is this time around and will perform every evening, exposition needs to be shared in different ways. While previous iterations have been blank in terms of design—no set, no costumes, just scripts in hand—the Plan-B production has a fantastic group of designers on board. Director Jerry Rapier will shepherd this story on its journey from an odd little play to a (sort of) world premiere.

Will the experiment succeed? I hope you’ll join us to find out.

BITTER LEMON by Melissa Leilani Larson, receives its (sort of) world premiere at Plan-B April 11-28, 2024. Please click here for details and tickets (including a Mini Subscription that includes Debora Threedy's BALTHAZAR).