Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Hitting the Bullseye of Heart and Humor

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

Love, power and obsession ruled the stage at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse over the weekend, as Shakespeare for the Masses presented Antony and Cleopatra.

The house was packed for Friday evening’s performance of the epic tragedy, performed by 10 actors playing twice as many characters. Taking place on two continents, with multiple sea battles and four on-stage suicides, Antony and Cleopatra has never been an easy play to follow. Shakespeare for the Masses show runners Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy solved that problem with a narration couching the tale in modern terms.

“One theme of this play is that love makes you do crazy things,” Ms. Galland told the audience, as the evening began.

A large, hand-drawn map and accompanying chart of characters also helped clarify Shakespeare’s complicated story. Armed with a pointer in one hand and a black marker in the other, Ms. McCarthy indicated where the action was taking place — Rome, Alexandria, Actium or the seas between — and crossed characters off the chart when they died or left the play for good.

Playing Mark Antony as a sensual, emotionally tormented Roman rock star, Mac Young was partnered by Amy Sabin Barrow as stormy, self-willed Cleopatra, whose passionate manipulations proved tragic for both rulers in the end.

Christopher Brophy’s Enobarbus was every inch the soldier, stoic in Antony’s support until he could no longer overlook what he saw as his master’s dereliction of duty — a tragedy foreshadowing the play’s deadly climax.

Equally stalwart was Charmian, played by Shelagh Hackett. As Cleopatra’s closest lady in waiting, her eyes and posture showed deep concern and love for the troubled queen.

Molly Purves played Octavius Caesar with the imperiousness his role demands, adding a smirk of triumph every time the monarch won another battle at sea and bringing both gravity and compassion to the play’s last, post-climax speech.

All of the other cast members played multiple roles, switching headgear to indicate their characters at the moment.

Katherine Reid, who gleamed as Emily in last year’s playhouse production of Our Town, brought some of that character’s pure sweetness to her performance as Octavia, Antony’s political bride. Ms. Reid also played the pirate Menas, with a tricorne hat and a salty swagger, as well as the tragically tardy Alexandrian messenger Diomedes.

Also doubling and tripling roles were Xavier Powers (Lepidus and Dercestas), Lagan Treischmann (Pompey and Proculeius) and Jill Macy (Agrippa, Eros and Thyreus).

But the award for most hats in one play would have to go to Scott Barrow, who appeared in six different minor roles. Each of his messengers, attendants, soldiers and slaves was a character in his own right, none more so than the unlucky Alexandrian minion tasked with breaking the news to Cleopatra that Antony had married Octavia.

Mr. Barrow’s facial expressions had the audience laughing helplessly as he reluctantly entered his queen’s presence, only to be punched out repeatedly by the irate Cleopatra. The two actors are real-life spouses, which added to the hilarity for audience members in the know.

Comedy is always a part of Shakespeare for the Masses, an Island off-season tradition for 12 years. Humor helps tell the tale and smooths over any awkwardnesses caused by the fact that the cast is reading from scripts after just a few hours of rehearsal.

But between the laughs, these productions are true to Shakespeare where it matters: in the arc of the story, the language of the plays’ most beautiful speeches and the characters that continue to compel our interest more than 400 years after they were created.

After Friday’s show, Ms. Galland said a second Shakespeare for the Masses production is not out of the question for this winter, but nothing is currently scheduled.

The playhouse continues to campaign against off-season dullness with a February schedule including epic films on Monday nights, starting at 6 p.m. due to their length. The first, Feb. 3, is Gone with the Wind. Feb. 5 brings the return of Arnie Reisman’s Poetry & Pie readings and on Feb. 6, playhouse artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo begins a Thursday night series of acting classes for adults.

On Feb. 14 and Feb. 15, Ms. Hackett joins Paul Munafo and pianist Adele Dreyer for an evening of love songs from Frank Sinatra’s repertoire.

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