Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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A Fairyland Arrives in Tisbury

by Noah Glasgow, Vineyard Gazette

Last Saturday evening, over 100 guests traveled through the small bower that connects the Tisbury Amphitheater to the nearby Tashmoo Overlook and settled themselves onto rows of bleachers. Unbeknownst to the audience a woodland fairy sat among them, in the coppiced trunks of a beech tree.

The fairy began to play a recorder, the ethereal notes drifting down from the canopy and casting a spell of silence on the set.

So begins this summer’s performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, a tradition that celebrates 40 years this summer.

For director MJ Bruder Munafo now is the pefect time for this particular play.

“We haven’t done Midsummer in 12 years,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo, who also serves as executive and artistic director of the playhouse. “It was time to do it. And it’s of course the most beautiful play to set in the amphitheater.”

Katherine Reid, who plays the boastful actor Nick Bottom in this year’s production, agreed.

“The amphitheater is honestly the most perfect space for Midsummer,” Ms. Reid said. “You’re in the woods and you’re in the land of the fairies. It’s awesome.”

Immersion in the natural space is both a highlight and challenge of an outdoor production, Ms. Reid added.

“You don’t get to lighting design and you don’t get sound design,” she said. “You don’t have the technical side of the production as much. So we have to make do with what we can. We use real instruments, we use our voices, we use the space itself.”

The show is a kinetic, musical feast, one that Ms. Bruder Munafo has assembled with community support. Jesse Wiener, class of 2004 at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, composed the haunting original music. Sandra Stone-Benjamin, who danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, provided the choreography.

The story follows members of the Athenian royal court who abscond to the woods to pursue their love affairs. They are bound up by coincidence in the designs of the fairy king Oberon and his mischievous henchman Puck. Meanwhile, a troupe of itinerant actors, the “rude mechanicals,” lose their star Nick Bottom to the fairy schemes; his head is transfigured into that of a donkey.

The show features a multi-generational cast.

“Our youngest cast member is 10 months old and our oldest is in his 70s — we have the opportunity to have a wide group of actors,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said of the production.

Many cast members are alumni of previous Shakespeare productions at the amphitheater. Xavier Powers, who plays the fairy king Oberon in this production, recalled sharing the stage with Ms. Reid in 2010’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They both had minor roles at the time, he said. She was a fairy, and he one of the mechanicals.

The playhouse has been staging Shakespeare in the Tisbury Amphitheater since the early 1980’s, according to Ms. Bruder Munafo — well before Mr. Powers and Ms. Reid were born.

Ms. Bruder Munafo said that at the peak of the Vineyard’s own feverish mid-summer — with churning crowds and gridlocked traffic, not to mention resurgent Covid numbers — managing a community theatre production can be hectic.

“This particular show is very challenging because the entire cast is… locally-based people, most of whom have full time jobs,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “So trying to get everybody to a rehearsal was a little bit like herding cats.”

Rehearsals ran for a brisk four weeks in June before performances began July 2, right when the pandemic began to make its presence felt again.

“Every week there’s been an actor or two out with Covid,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Mr. Powers told the Gazette that the entire cast begins the week with a Covid test. When actors have tested positive, he said, others have stepped in to fill their place, even if that means having a script in hand.

“We’re following the old adage ‘the show must go on’ in a more significant way than ever this year,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Ms. Reid said that the difficulties of the pandemic have underscored the integral role of the whole cast, not just the stars.

“I feel like understudies are always sort of underrated roles in productions because they’re usually the thankless job,” Ms. Reid said. “But I think with Covid being part of our lives now, they’re going to be more and more important as time goes on.”

The need to provide some relief to the disorienting Island summer has motivated cast and crew of this year’s show.

“It felt like we needed the fairies and the woods this year, and a little bit of joy,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo. “It’s about love and magic. And I think we all wanted a dose of that this year.”

“There’s just this sense of kindness, and the sense of mutual support of each other,” Ms. Reid said.

Ms. Bruder Munafo added that, as a fantasy and a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a wide appeal.

“It’s just a big crowd pleaser,” she said.

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