Delighting the masses, one Shakespeare play at a time

Billy Cookson and Jill Macy in "Pericles." — Photo by Nicole Galland

Whe n Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy get their hands on one of the works of Shakespeare, you never know what to expect. For the past three years, the two have managed to turn material that might be daunting to some into highly entertaining, fun, and funny theatrical events through their series Shakespeare for the Masses.

This weekend, for their fourth season opener, audiences will be treated to an abridged, narrator-enhanced production of “The Tempest,” a fantasy tale rife with spells and sorcery, music and magic, and a play within a play. Along with the mortal cast, the Tempest features a spirit, a monster, a witch, and assorted goddesses. The combination of some very fanciful material and the highly creative team of Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy should proved irresistible

“The Tempest” is classed with Shakespeare’s comedies but is often referred to as a romance, since it is difficult to classify. “It’s Shakespeare’s last play and it’s so theatrical,” Ms. Galland says. “There are a couple of crazy scenes which he did just to show off the tricks and special effects…Part of what we like about it is it’s sufficiently weird. What’s most fun for us and for our audiences is when we take the weird material and play around with it. The more we play around with things, the more fun we have.”

With “The Tempest,” the series — in its fourth season — has come full circle in a way. The idea was hatched between the co-creators during the cast party for the Tisbury Ampitheater production of “The Tempest” in 2007.

The Vineyard Playhouse traditionally presents outdoor performances of one of Shakespeare’s comedies every summer. Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy wanted to figure out a way to present the entire Shakespeare canon, including the dramas and histories, to audiences over the course of several winters. The series’ subtitle: Quick, Painless, and Free, reflects the mission of the two women — to serve up Shakespeare to a broad range of palates by shortening the work, cutting out some of the longer and more labored scenes and passages, and enticing audiences with budget-conscious winter entertainment. So far, the formula has proven very successful, with the series winning new fans with each performance.

Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Galland have presented about 20 different productions in the Shakespeare for the Masses series and have earned a reputation, and an impressively large following, for their work.

The plays are enhanced by helpful — and humorous — narration, and are presented as readings to facilitate a short rehearsal time. Although the actors refer to the scripts, the productions are still full of action — swordfights, love scenes, murder, and even cleverly staged sea battles. Some creative devices have included a dance-off duel and a dating show sequence.

A narrator role, generally taken on by Ms. Galland, has been inserted into the productions, and the character adds a great deal of humor and social commentary as well as some historical background. Alghough often abbreviated, none of Shakespeare’s dialogue has been altered, since the purpose of the project has been to introduce the language, as well as the stories of Shakespeare, to a broad audience.

Due to the success of the series, Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy were approached by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum this past summer to do a reworking of “The Tempest” at the Edgartown Lighthouse — an appropriate setting since the play takes place on an island and begins with a shipwreck. The performance was well attended with audience members sitting on the beach enjoying the show.

Since Ms. McCarthy has been busy as the star of Island Theare Workshop’s production of “The Turn of the Screw,” the two women decided, in consideration of time, to rework their existing script of “The Tempest” for their season opener. The script had to be modified somewhat in switching the production from outdoors to The Playhouse stage, but the adaptation process, which often takes weeks, was considerably shortened.

Ms. Galland, too, has been busy. She is currently finishing up final edits on her fourth novel, which will be published by Harper Collins, in April. Ms. Galland writes historical fiction and her latest book recounts the life of Iago, the famously scheming villain in Shakespeare’s drama “Othello.” It was a Shakespeare for the Masses production of that play two years ago that inspired Ms. Galland.

“I would not have written that book if we hadn’t had that production,” she said. Her previous three novels have earned critical praise. Before devoting herself full-time to her writing, Ms. Galland studied drama and worked in theater in California. She has worked a number of times with The Playhouse productions, including directing Shakespeare.

Ms. McCarthy’s extensive acting resume includes a number of Shakespearean roles in the summer productions at the Tisbury Ampitheater. This past summer, she made her directing debut for The Playhouse with the Ampitheater production of “The Comedy of Errors.”

Shakespeare for the Masses has developed a fairly consistent troupe of local actors. Many of the cast members from the summer production of “The Tempest” will reprise their roles, including Jill Macy as the play’s protagonist, Prospero, an exiled duke who uses magic in an attempt to foil his usurper. Ms. Macy has appeared in almost all of the productions, although this is her first lead role. “It’s sort of like Chelsea and Nicky let us out at the gate and just let us go — under their guidance, of course. They’re such wonderful directors,” Ms. Macy said. “One of their talents is to bring out the humor in the projects, even in the dramas. It’s made it so much more accessible.”

The Playhouse will be closing down for an extensive renovation project starting on November 8, but Ms. Galland promises that Shakespeare for the Masses will go on all winter and she says that they are exploring other venues. On her short list of other plays for this year are “Titus Andronicus,” “Richard III,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Ms. Galland is not overly concerned with finding a temporary home for the series: “We always fly by the seat of our pants, but we’ll be flying even higher by the seat of our pants this year.”

Shakespeare for the Masses presents “The Tempest,” Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5, 7 pm, The Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Free.