Chris Brophy: A man of many roles feels at home on stage

From 2011: Christopher Brophy, left, and Jamie Alley in "Strange Fruit." — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Chris Brophy’s face, expressive and elastic, is familiar to most Island theatergoers.

The veteran actor who recently relocated from the Vineyard to western Massachusetts has appeared in dozens of productions with The Vineyard Playhouse, and he was a founding member of the popular improv group WIMP. He is currently a staple member of the Shakespeare for the Masses troupe, a group that presents abridged, enhanced plays by The Bard.

A couple of weekends ago, Mr. Brophy took on the lead in that group’s production of “King John,” one of Shakespeare’s seldom performed history plays. As the not so likeable king, Mr. Brophy mugged his way through the show, playing John for laughs as a clueless diva. His performance added a lot to what was a fun and funny romp through early English history.

Although Chelsea McCarthy and Nicole Galland, the two co-creators of the series, add a lot of humor and some fun pop culture references to their shows, the dialogue, while considerably pared down, is 100 percent Shakespeare, and the shows greatly benefit from narrator-provided historical context.

While Mr. Brophy visibly enjoyed chewing up the scenery with this hammy interpretation of King John, he is also a veteran Shakespearean actor who has played it straight in about 10 of The Bard’s comedies and dramas both here and in Boston. His favorite role has been Macbeth. He tackled the lead for the Boston’s New Repertory Theater in 2005 and then, a year later, encouraged Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy to present the shortened version as the second outing of their inaugural year. He played the lead in “Macbeth” here twice and he has appeared in almost all of the Shakespeare for the Masses productions over the six years of its existence.

Mr. Brophy is an equity actor whose credentials include a number of outings with Boston theater companies including Shakespeare Now! Boston Theater Works, Zeitgeist Theater Company, and the New Repertory Theater. But he got his start as an actor while living on the Vineyard.

When he first came here in 1989 after majoring in English at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire and spending time in Boston, he had not entertained the idea of acting as a career. He arrived on the Island on Halloween and quickly fell in with a community of artists. “There were a lot of young, creative, artistic people here,” he said. “We were doing sort of performance art street theater.”

Mr. Brophy attended a performance at The Vineyard Playhouse and decided to try his hand at acting. His first role was in “The Misanthrope” by Moliere. He soon became a regular player for the Playhouse, appearing in numerous productions on their main stage and at the ampitheater. For many years he also worked with kids in the Fourth Grade Theater Project, The Vineyard Playhouse’s hands-on educational initiative that led kids from Island schools through all phases of play production.

The improvisation group WIMP was formed as a way to raise money to put on a play. However, once that goal was met, the group had earned a following and eventually outgrew their home at the former Wintertide Coffeehouse. During their heyday, WIMP performed twice a week in the summer to sold out audiences at the Grange Hall. Mr. Brophy, a skilled comedian, was one of six talented players whose energy and inventiveness kept crowds laughing for years during the 90s. He also taught kids at IMP’s summer camp.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brophy’s outings with the Playhouse eventually transformed a hobby into a career. “I started doing plays just because it seemed like fun without realizing if you keep doing this you’re going to turn into an actor,” he said. “I wouldn’t be an actor if it weren’t for MJ [Bruder-Munafo, longtime artistic director] and the Playhouse.”

A Boston actor who appeared in a production at the Playhouse with Mr. Brophy convinced him to move on to that city’s stages. For a number of years, Mr. Brophy acted in Boston during the winter and returned to the Vineyard each summer.

When Shakespeare for the Masses formed in 2006, Mr. Brophy decided that between that and the Fourth Grade Theater Project, he could find enough of a creative outlet to justify living year-round on the Vineyard.

“I thought, ‘Even if I’m not doing a really popular play in a great theater in Boston, I can still satisfy myself creatively here on the Vineyard,'” he said.

However, when the Fourth Grade project was discontinued last winter, Mr. Brophy decided it was time to relocate. Last January he moved back to his hometown, Pittsfield, to help his aging mother. He has done a show at the Barrington Stage Company and is currently auditioning for regional theater companies in western Mass. However, he will return to appear in Shakespeare for the Masses productions throughout the off season. “I think the Vineyard will always be a home for me,” he said.

One of the roles that Mr. Brophy is perhaps best known for here is the elf Crumpet in David Sedaris’s one-man show, “Santaland Diaries,” which he did three times for The Vineyard Playhouse. Of his solo turn in the comedy about a man working a holiday job as an elf at Macy’s, he jokes, “It was one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with.”

Mr. Brophy is also a wonderful addition to Shakespeare for the Masses, often stealing the show with his comedic turns. But, whether playing it for laughs or not, he takes the productions seriously. He does an expert job delivering some of the classic Shakespearian speeches with the skill of a trained actor. He studies his roles, even delving into the historical background. “There’s nothing worse than a stupid actor,” he said. “You should always know more than the audience.”

Mr. Brophy’s improvisation training has come in handy with the minimally rehearsed Shakespeare staged readings. After the actors covered a glitch in a recent performance, he quoted an improv saying backstage to the other actors: “Play it wrong, play it strong.” He explains that expression, saying that confidence is key to getting out of a theatrical jam.

The popularity of the Shakespeare for Masses productions is due in part to that spontaneity and also to the individual personalities of the performers, which fans of the series have come to know quite well. Mr. Brophy is a welcome addition to a troupe that has proven again and again that Shakespeare can be fun — and inventive.