Clara Bush (left) as Lady Macbeth and Emma Roth as Macbeth in Eastern Mennonite University's production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," opening Nov. 10 at the Mainstage Theater. (Photos by Macson Mcguigan)

Female cast presents Shakespeare’s Scottish play … with a twist

Eastern Mennonite University’s fall production of “Macbeth” demanded ingenuity from theater professor and director Heidi Winters Vogel.

Vogel wanted to give her senior theater majors, all women, an opportunity to play Shakespeare’s complex characters. But the play called for just two female main characters.

What to do? Vogel’s answer: Make the setting a contemporary women’s prison.

Emma Roth as Macbeth.

“The challenge for me was to identify a milieu where women dominate the brutal landscape of the story,” she writes in the director’s notes. “Shakespeare set the action in medieval Scotland, a harsh and savage environment where the struggle to survive was often deadly. Violent, savage, harsh and retributive are words used to describe the contemporary American prison system. There the women build alliances, negotiate treaties and struggle to survive.”

Performances in the Mainstage Theater are Friday, Nov. 10, and Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 16-18, at 7:30 p.m. A Sunday, Nov. 12 matinee, begins at 3 p.m.

A dual challenge

Cast members are faced with not only learning and memorizing Shakespeare’s words, but understanding the prison environment.

“I have been preparing for my role by going in depth through my lines to make sure that I understand every word and sentence,” said Clara Bush, who plays Lady Macbeth. “I have also been doing my best to learn what prison life is like for women to get a better idea of how I should interpret Shakespearean language in this context to keep the integrity of the speech while also putting a new spin on it. I want to do justice to the prison setting and try to be true to it.”

Emma Roth, in the role of Macbeth, is “digging into the relationships between my character and every other character in the play and how they interact and what causes their actions against or with each other.”

“What’s really unique about setting Macbeth in a prison culture,” Roth said, “is that it works really well, which is kind of creepy, but it’s also really cool how easily that concept meshes with this play.”

Last week, one of Vogel’s rehearsal warm-ups focused on the characters as prisoners. Actors walked on stage in shoes they’ll wear in performance. This helps them get a sense of how their characters will move. The guards’ combat boots gives a sense of power, inmates’ soft soles not so much. They have to work harder at being tough.

Clara Bush (left) and Emma Roth.

Vogel talked to the cast as they walked, suggesting questions to ask themselves about their characters and to consider what these incarcerated women go through on a daily basis. Slowly, a transformation from students to long-time inmates emerged physically — with clenched jaws, darting eyes, stiff backs or a walk that warns ‘don’t even think about it.’

At the end of the exercise, Vogel commented on the scary psychopath junior nursing major Alyssa Shenk is creating for one of her roles. “That’s what I was going for,” Shenk said, smiling as she broke character.

Learning stage combat

Actor preparations have also included stage combat, something Shakespeare’s females don’t often participate in. In this production, however, the women seem to relish creating mayhem during a prison rumble.

“It is thrilling to engage in a new, foreign part of myself that I don’t access much,” Bush said. “I am not very physically aggressive in my normal life, so it’s been interesting to tackle the task of learning how to make it look like you are punching and kicking and pulling people’s hair. It is certainly out of the norm for me, and it’s very fun.”

Vogel’s concept not only allows her students to perform a verse play, but also to take on scary, complex roles in a Shakespearean tragedy.

“This one is certainly dark, the themes of ambition and violence, and especially how power corrupts are pertinent today,” Vogel said. Several actors made comparisons to current events during their break. “It also gives our senior female performance majors an opportunity that they may never have again. Mostly it is about serving the women of the theater department with a challenge that hones their craft.”

Tickets can be purchased online, at the box office, or by calling 540-432-4582.

Cast list

Macbeth, inmate: Emma Roth

Banquo (Banq), inmate: Myriam Aziz

Donalbain (Bain), inmate,Murderer #2: Emily Higgins

Pleance (Flea), inmate: Brooke Bevington

Duncan (Dunc), king of the inmates,Hecate, warden: Renata Loberg

Porter, inmate: Cassidy Bush

Lennox: Caroline Murch

Lady Macbeth, inmate: Clara Bush

Macduff, inmate: MaKayla Baker

Murderer #1: Dallas Hetrick

Mrs. Macduff, Duff’s mother: Hunter Gregory

Duff’s daughter: Helena Nafziger

Prison psychologist: Renata Loberg

Director: Heidi Vogel

Assistant director: Liz Marin

Stage managers: Amber Hooper and Jacob Lester