Got problems? Get a little perspective on ‘em with the help of Shakespeare’s most famous “problem play,” “Measure for Measure.” Next Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 28 and 29, Shakespeare for the Masses will present their version of “Measure for Measure” at the Vineyard Playhouse.
Among other ageless themes, the play looks at hypocrisy in public figures, the abuse of power, government meddling into people’s private lives, and that old perennial, lust, and what to do about it.
The play is set in sinful, 16th-century Vienna. In a Renaissance good cop/bad cop move, the Duke of Vienna goes on hiatus, leaving his deputy Angelo responsible to start imposing strict anti-vice laws that the Duke himself has never bothered to impose. Angelo develops lecherous feelings for the sister of a man condemned to death for lechery; the Duke, watching what unfolds while disguised as a monk, meddles in ways that solves some problems — but also creates new ones.
For anyone who has been hibernating the past couple of winters, Shakespeare for the Masses is a wildly popular script-in-hand troupe billing itself as “the quick and painless and free” way to enjoy Shakespeare in winter. Their goal is to introduce “Shakespeare the storyteller” to people who are leery of “Shakespeare the guy who writes in strange old-fashioned English.”
Chelsea McCarthy and Nicole Galland adapt and direct the works, which are performed in under an hour by an ensemble of nimble Island actors who have had only one day of rehearsal. Despite being staged readings, there is no shortage of physical action: There are duels, battle scenes, kidnappings, and assassinations; “Merchant of Venice” included a game show, and the most recent production, “Pericles,” had a dance-off that featured a break-dance sequence. Last year’s “Antony and Cleopatra” — with the help of cardboard cut-out ships and GI Joe dolls — featured on-stage naval battles that are merely talked about when the play is done for real.
“Measure for Measure” was performed during the troupe’s first season, but as Ms. Galland explains, “We’ve changed how we work with the material — we’re a lot more irreverent than we used to be. We wanted to go back to the first season and revisit some of the early shows, now that we’ve developed a more distinct style.”
As well as shortening the running time by about 20 minutes, they’ve added a short dumb-show and changed the ending, which is notoriously ambiguous even in the original version. “We’re experimenting with audience participation,” Ms. Galland says.
Since October 2008, Shakespeare for the Masses has turned out 15 shows encompassing 17 plays (last season’s finale, called Triple Crown, was actually three of the history plays done in 90 minutes). The shows are produced by the Vineyard Playhouse and usually performed there, although this summer they did “The Tempest” at the Edgartown Lighthouse, and an earlier version of “Measure for Measure” was presented at Che’s Lounge.
“Measure For Measure” is adapted by Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy, and features Billy Meleady, Scott Barrow, Brooke Hardman, Christopher Brophy, Mac Young, Amy Sabin, Rob Myers, Emma Urban, and Molly Purves.
Shakespeare for the Masses’ “Measure For Measure,” 7 pm, Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 28, 29, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Approx. 1 hour. vineyardplayhouse.org.