PITTSFIELD — When Caroline Fairweather was attending the Williams College Summer Theatre Lab last summer, she wanted to workshop the opening monologue from "Richard III." That got the Pittsfield native thinking about William Shakespeare's famous tale of Richard's murderous rise and demise.
"I have never seen a character as selfish and as misguided and villainous as Richard in female form without it being super sexualized," Fairweather said by phone Monday. "So, basically, I was like, 'What would happen if Richard were a woman, and these physical tics and tendencies came from a different place?'"
The question helped initiate her devised riff on "Richard III," "discontent," that will receive a workshop production by GhostLit Repertory Theatre Company at Pittsfield's Whitney Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday night, as well as Sunday afternoon. Caitlin Teeley will direct. In the play, Richard takes the form of a woman named Rue (Shea Kelly), a contemporary, affluent twentysomething who suffers from a disorder akin to dermatillomania or excoriation disorder. Clawing at her own skin, Rue is struggling to reckon with her own image, but it's her husband Anthony's wounds that escalate her rage. Based on Lady Anne, Anthony (David Bertoldi) bears the marks of facial burns stemming from an incident with his late father, Henry.
"He and Rue, as a pair together, are dealing with these cosmetic injuries and whatever [else] that really prevent them from operating how they would like to," Fairweather said, noting that their wealth heightens their obsession with public appearances.
A baby's naming raises the work's stakes. The child belongs to Edel (Annarose Stewart) and Clarence, Anthony's brother. Clarence witnessed Henry burning Anthony but still backs naming his boy after the man. The plot point is an attempt by Fairweather to match the social capital at stake in plays about kings and queens.
"What would be an equivalent subject but very, very interior and personalized? The thing that I couldn't stop thinking about was legacy, especially with pressures on women to have children or not have children at a certain age," Fairweather recalled.
The playwright, who is entering her senior year at Williams College, sought to explore that anxiety as dramatically as possible "and still make it seem like it's something that could happen within four walls of the house."
"I thought a lot about what these people would be thinking about leaving behind, and what they would want their life to have looked like, especially through their children's eyes," she said.
Edel is the one to break the news to Anthony about the child's name. Fairweather loosely based her character on Edward, "the very good, benign force" at the beginning of "Richard III."
"She is sort of like the foil to ruin Anthony. She's everything that they want to be. She's just had a child. She's around their age. She's really spiritual. She's not necessarily tied to Christianity or one religion, but a very spiritual person," Fairweather said.
Meanwhile, Rue is stewing. She knows that young Henry will constantly taunt her husband — and her.
"She's going to look powerless," Fairweather said, "and she feels like she is."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.