Shakespeare for the Masses performs their version of “Timon of Athens” tomorrow and Saturday evenings at the Vineyard Playhouse on Church Street in Vineyard Haven.
In keeping with their usual MO, the troupe’s co-founders Chelsea McCarthy and Nicole Galland have trimmed the play — one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works — to just under an hour, with far more laughs than the Bard intended in the original. The performances start at 7 pm and are free of charge, although donations are welcome.
“Timon of Athens” is a timely play for these Recession-plagued days. It tells the story of a wealthy man who gives a little too freely of his wealth, offering gifts, patronage, and feasts to most of the Athenian population. When his overzealous spending renders him deeply in debt, he turns to his wealthy friends for assistance, but in vain. Disgusted and penniless, Timon (played by Christopher Brophy, a perennial Playhouse favorite) forswears Athens and storms out of the city into the wilderness — where he stumbles across an enormous cache of gold.
How he doles out the lucre, given that he is now a committed curmudgeon, makes up the second half of the play.
The Shakespeare for the Masses performances are done script-in-hand (the actors only rehearse the day of the first performance), but these presentations are more ambitious than the term “staged reading” implies.
Thanks to having a number of actors with experience in stage combat (including two fight choreographers), the shows have featured duels, fisticuffs, suicides, Julius Caesar’s assassination, Antony & Cleopatra’s naval battles, and parts of the Trojan War. Audiences have also witnessed shipwrecks, seductions, a dance competition, and an ambulatory forest.
Because “Timon of Athens” does not make such physical demands on the actors, Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Galland are planning other ways to keep the energy high.
“With [the last production] ‘Measure for Measure,’ we asked the audience to vote on the ending,” Ms. Galland says. “It’s a very ambiguous ending — one of the characters receives an unexpected marriage proposal and the text doesn’t tell us if she accepts it or not. So we rehearsed two different endings and let the audience decide. They voted the same way both nights — to reject the proposal — which we expected, but it was fun for everyone.”
That experience was inspiring and encouraged them to continue playing around with audience participation. “We’re not pulling people up on stage to do walk-on roles or anything like that,” Ms. McCarthy says, “But we’re learning there are more ways to include the audience than just having the narrator talk to them.”
Plum TV is planning a segment on Shakespeare for the Masses; a video crew will be taping the rehearsal process and possibly parts of one performance, so if you show up Friday night, you might find yourself on television.
Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Galland have found that it is easier to adapt the more obscure Shakespeare works, such as “Timon of Athens,” because they are not burdened with the aura of sanctity that surrounds plays like “Othello,” “King Lear,” and of course, “Hamlet.”
“It’s easy to mess with material that nobody knows. ‘Hamlet’ was our first project, and we only dared to add one single cheap joke to it,” Ms. Galland says. “Now, whenever we work on a script, we’re constantly looking for opportunities for cheap jokes. And the genius about Shakespeare is that no matter how many cheap jokes you add — Shakespeare himself used plenty of cheap jokes — the powerful, beautiful stuff just shines right through. We like to think we’re offering the best of both words: the sublime and the ridiculous.”
“Timon of Athens” will be performed by Christopher Brophy, Molly Purves, Jamie Alley, and Xavier Powers in principal roles, aided and abetted by a quick-change ensemble of Ms. McCarthy, Billy Meleady, Rob Myers, Anna Ward, Jill Macy, and Bill Cookson.
Anna Yukevich and Ms. Galland will be the “Folio” or narrator — a key role in any Shakespeare for the Masses adaptation.
“Timon of Athens,” 7 pm, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28 and 29, Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church Street. Free; donations welcome. vineyardplayhouse.org.