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Playhouse Summer Season Embraces Stages Everywhere

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

The Tisbury Amphitheatre will become an enchanted Greek forest next week when the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream, three evenings a week from July 2 to July 30.

“We need fairies and magic right now,” said playhouse executive and artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo, who is directing her own adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy for the first time in more than a decade.

“I’ve done it twice before, once in 2004 and once in 2010,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo, who enlisted composer Jesse Wiener — a 2004 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School — to write original music for the playhouse adaptation.

“He composed music for the fairies to sing and dance to, and it’s all meant to be played live by the various cast members on recorder and pennywhistle,” she told the Gazette by phone as she prepared for rehearsal Tuesday.

Singer-actor Shelagh Hackett is directing the music, while dressmaker-designer Chrysal Parrot has given a fresh makeover to the costumes she created for the 2004 production, Ms. Bruder Munafo said. Sandra Stone-Benjamin, a former dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, is the show’s choreographer, Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

More than two dozen people, including small children, are appearing in this year’s show, she added.

“Everyone in the cast is someone who lives here or lives here in the summer,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

As she did with her 2019 production of Our Town on the playhouse main stage, Ms. Bruder Munafo has also cast actors from Virginia’s Drama Club, an improv class she leads for Islanders with disabilities.

“It will be a great big local production,” she said.

In all, some 25 people will take the stage — if everyone can make it, Ms. Bruder Munafo said, in a knock-wood acknowledgment of rising Covid rates.

“Covid has definitely increased the challenge of trying to schedule and direct a large cast,” she said.

Even without the virus, meshing the summer schedules of so many individuals has been a challenge.

“It’s been pretty crazy to put this together, and I knew it would be like that,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

“The old adage, ‘the show must go on,’ will be our motto,” she added.

The play stars Xavier Powers and Emily Hewson as Oberon and Titania, squabbling king and queen of the fairies, in a multi-generational cast with an age range of three to 73, Ms. Bruder Munafo said. Ms. Hewson played Maria in the 2018 regional high school production of West Side Story before going on to college at Bennington, while Mr. Powers is a regular member of Playhouse casts.

Musician-actor Augie Padua, a second-generation playhouse performer whose father Paul Padua has been a longtime cast member of the Fabulists troupe for children, plays Puck, the mischief-making sprite also known as Robin Goodfellow.

Shakespeare’s mortal characters include Nick Bottom, with Katherine Reid as the donkey-headed weaver, and Hippolyta, played by Scarlet Johnson in her playhouse debut, Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Ingrid Moore, who recently appeared as M. Thénardier in the high school’s Les Misérables, plays Hermia, opposite Island seasonal resident Hallie Brevetti as Lysander. Dukes County clerk of courts George Davis portrays Theseus. Performances will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from July 2 through July 30, with tickets available on a pay-what-you-can basis through the playhouse website as well as at the amphitheatre before show time. The show runs about an hour and a half with no intermission, Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream kicks off a summer of theatre, comedy and music, both under the sky at the amphitheatre and in the historic playhouse on Church street in Vineyard Haven.

Summer Stars, the playhouse’s theatre camp for children aged 8 to 13, runs weekdays starting July 4 at the amphitheatre.

The Fabulists, a Saturday-morning series of plays for young audiences performed by adult actors with plentiful audience participation, begins its 2022 season at the amphitheatre on July 9.

“It’s a really wonderful, joyful thing for families,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said of The Fabulists.

“Everyone can bring their little ones. It doesn’t matter if they run around or cry or shout. It’s for them,” she said.

For grown-ups, actors Amy Brenneman and Tsilala Brock will bring The Niceties to the playhouse stage July 8 and July 9, for a pair of staged readings that will give Island audiences their first in-person look at the provocative drama by Eleanor Burgess. Proceeds from the two nights, which follow Zoom readings of the play in 2020 and 2021, will benefit the playhouse, the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard and the Innocence Project.

The playhouse then pivots to stand-up, with a series of three main-stage engagements featuring Irish-American performers from the Boston area.

“It just worked out that way,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Charlestown-raised comedian Steve Sweeney brings his autobiographical show Townie to the playhouse, July 13 through July 16.

Kevin Flynn returns with his own hilarious, yet touchingly wise life story Fear of Heights, which he performed at the playhouse last October. The show runs July 20 through July 23.

Jimmy Tingle rounds out the comic line-up July 28 through July 30. Mr. Tingle has a long history with the playhouse, but hasn’t appeared there in recent years, Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

“It’s nice to have him return here for these three performances,” she said.

August 3 through August 13 on the main stage, actress-playwright April Armstrong performs Two Wings to Heaven: The Story of Bessie Coleman, her one-woman show about a pioneering African-American pilot.

This summer’s string of single and two-handed shows are largely a result of the Island’s skyrocketing housing costs, which have limited the playhouse’s ability to bring off-Island casts and crews to the Vineyard for up to six weeks of rehearsals and performances. But Ms. Bruder Munafo said one fully-staged production is in the works for late August and early September.

“I found one house,” she said.

Titled Burning Patience, the play is based on a novel by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta about the friendship between exiled poet Pablo Neruda and a mail carrier.

“It’s the story that the movie Il Postino was based on,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

Playhouse alumna Olga Sanchez, a theatre instructor at Middlebury College, will direct a cast of bilingual actors with Latin heritage in Burning Patience, which opens the last week of August.

All shows on the main stage begin at 7:30 p.m.

Masks remain mandatory for performances inside the playhouse, Ms. Bruder Munafo said, adding that the building also boasts a top-of-the-line air filtering system installed during the 2017 capital renovation.

“We have one of the best air-handling systems on the Island,” she said. “We have MERV 16 [air] filters …. the highest you can go.”

The playhouse also continues hosting art exhibitions in its lobby, where landscape photographs by Michael Johnson are on display through July 16.

A show and sale of photography by the late Allan Gerson will open next, with a reception July 27, Ms. Bruder Munafo said. For more information about playhouse programs, visit mvplayhouse.org.

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