The Vineyard Playhouse’s irreverent wintertime series Shakespeare for the Masses opens its third season Friday night with their tongue-in-cheek version of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.”
The brainchild of Chelsea McCarthy and Nicole Galland, the series is billed as “quick and painless and free.” The troupe has a playful, fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants approach to the Bard: a tightly knit ensemble of actors have one day to rehearse and two days to perform a highly mobile script-in-hand adaptation, featuring fight choreography, stylized battle scene, dumb-shows, and a sardonic narrator (usually Ms. Galland). The shows run an hour or less, and are free to the public, although the Playhouse is always happy to accept donations.
Although the performances themselves come together very quickly, Ms Galland and Ms. McCarthy spend weeks retooling each script to suit their needs. Those needs have changed over the past two years. The duo had originally envisioned the staged readings as an inexpensive, easy way for actors to sink their teeth into the meatier offerings of the Shakespeare canon: their first two shows were “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” and they closed the first season with “King Lear.” But early in their second season, they found themselves taking greater liberties with the Bard’s work — and the more irreverent they were, the more enthusiastic the audiences became.
“Last year, with every single script, I’d say to Chelsea, ‘This one is going to be our first flop’ — every time, I said that — but it never was,” says Ms. Galland. “They just got more and more popular, the more we pushed the envelope. We have groupies, they come to both nights of the show — and these are not Shakespeare geeks, these are not people who read Shakespeare for pleasure. They come the first time because somebody drags them there, and then they get hooked. We love Shakespeare, and yet we increasingly make fun of him. The audience gets to feel like they’re in on some joke with us — and they are.”
“We want to go back to some of the plays from our first season, and re-work them, now that we really have our groove going,” says Ms. McCarthy. “Our first performance of “Hamlet” ran about two and a half hours. Now we could do it in half that time, with twice the laughs, without sacrificing how brilliant it is.”
To end their second season, they took three of Shakespeare’s history plays — “Richard II” and both parts of “Henry IV” — and collapsed them into a 90-minute mash-up, relying heavily on sports metaphors, called “Triple Crown.” The show kept the famously poignant, poetic scenes and speeches of all three plays, and yet overall felt like a comedy.
“Pericles,” which kicks off Season 3, is a fairy tale for grownups. It features assassins, pirates, shipwrecks, damsels in distress, true love, a Greek goddess — but there’s also incest and enforced prostitution. “Both of us, independently, thought we should do it as a soap opera,” says Ms. Galland. “So we gave in to that impulse. It’s so much fun, it’s really over the top. We did the first few edits on the script, and the first draft of the narrator’s speeches — then we found out who was available to perform, and we did a final edit based on who’s playing what, to play to everyone’s specific strengths. ‘Pericles’ will be our 15th production in 25 months, so we know our actors pretty well by now.”
“Pericles” features Rob Myers in the title role, as well as Bill Cookson, Nicole Galland, Liz Hartford, Alexandra London-Thompson, Jill Macy, Chelsea McCarthy, Billy Meleady, Pete Stray, Emma Urban, and Anna Yukevich.
Shakespeare for the Masses presents “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” Friday and Saturday, Nov. 26 and 27, 7 pm, The Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Free; donations accepted. vineyardplayhouse.org.