Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Here comes the Bard

by Wendy Taucher, The MV Times

Shakespeare is only really fun when it doesn’t sound like Shakespeare. But it’s great when it sounds like you and me. No, I don’t mean rewriting any of the language. I mean no declaiming, no self-indulgence, no quasi-fake accents and no singsong rhythms. Which brings us to Shakespeare for the Masses and its upcoming performances of “Richard III,” on Jan. 19 and 20 at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. When they do Shakespeare, they do it right.

Created in 2008, SFTM was founded and is still directed by Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy. McCarthy says, “With Shakespeare, the actor has to understand what they’re saying — every word — or the audience has no chance. It’s as simple that. Otherwise you get bad Shakespeare, and everybody hates bad Shakespeare.”

The Playhouse has presented SFTM since its beginning. Nicole Galland, a New York Times bestselling author, and Chelsea McCarthy, a busy Island theater maven, act as producers and directors. Oh, yes, and actors, too. They abridge each play as sort of Shakespearean script doctors, keeping things to about an hour. They assemble a cast, rehearse the staged-reading format, using their own original narration to connect the dots. The end result is completely entertaining, fast-paced, yet admittedly cut to shreds. Not to worry, plenty of the good bits remain.

Artistic and executive director of the Playhouse MJ Bruder Munafo knew when first reading the duo’s pitch, that she’d found a good thing when she saw it. The Playhouse is busy all summer with fully staged productions. Munafo imaginatively programs other types of events for the off-season, including poetry, movies, musicals, and solo shows. SFTM is one of the annual mainstays.

Galland and McCarthy take the fun of adapting the scripts seriously. McCarthy amusingly refers to themselves as “Shakespeare nerds.” Their process is to learn the complete script inside out, research its references, history, and context. Their first go-round didn’t go as smoothly as they hoped. They diligently sat side by side, computers at the ready, analyzed every single line, and made their decisions. The first performance lasted 2½ hours. Not to panic. Overnight they continued making cuts, getting things down to their desired goal of an hourlong reading.

“Richard III” is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and contains one of those lines that everyone knows, but is not sure where it comes from: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” There’s a rather violent disagreement for control of the throne of England. Richard III is a bitter hunchback, not known for his genial personality, who thinks it would be good to be king. Alas, he’ll need to bump off some relatives first. But that doesn’t stop him. Along the way he manages to convince Lady Anne, who knows he is a murdering fiend, since he murdered her husband, to marry him. Anyway, lots of people die, but there’s a happy ending.

The cast for the upcoming “Richard III” is terrific. You’ll experience the work of Chris Brophy as Richard III, with everyone else playing “100 parts each.” Along with Galland and McCarthy, the cast includes Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, Shelagh Hackett, Liz Michael Hartford, Jill Macy, Xavier Powers, Molly Purves, and Amy Barrow. In fact, the cast has become a sort of ad hoc SFTM rep company.

McCarthy and Purves first played Shakespeare together as part of the Yard’s “Othello Project,” which compared the Shakespeare play with Verdi’s “Otello” and José Limón’s dance “The Moor’s Pavane,” starring Broadway regular André De Shields and the Limón Company. Purves says, “I was amazed at how Limón was able to choreograph the complete story without any words, one handkerchief, all in 20 minutes.”  She adds about SFTM, I’ve seen some really deep work come out of it, great choices and thoughtful work from the directors and my fellow actors.”  

McCarthy, who had done “As You Like It” for the Playhouse at the amphitheater the same summer as the “Othello Project,” found, with Galland, who had directed “As You Like It,” that they wanted more Shakespeare. Hence Buddy Shakespeare.

Ditchfield and Brophy are two other lifers with SFTM. Ditchfield, currently the M.V. Regional High School drama teacher, and an eight-year member of Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Company, explained her love of the collaborative process the troupe uses. “I love the ensemble nature of the endeavor. Everyone brings so much experience, knowledge, drive, curiosity, and talent, we get as much out of the process as the audience.”

Brophy, a 12-year veteran of the improv group WIMP, who did not go to school for acting, says he literally learned his craft at the Playhouse over the years. One of the Island’s most popular actors, he said he believes “Galland and McCarthy do a surgically good job on editing the scripts. They’ve used their brains and humor to create a magic formula.”

“At first, when we started in 2008, we hoped people would come to see an obscure Shakespeare play because it was free,” McCarthy said. “The off-season thinking being, ‘There’s nothing else going on, what have I got to lose, it’s only an hour.’ We’re so proud that it’s still free, still about an hour, and we’re so grateful the community keeps coming back and supporting us.”  

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