Imagine yourself in the Tisbury Amphitheatre on a summer afternoon. On the earthen stage before you, a comedy unfolds. As is common in Shakespeare, this one is marked by a woman disguised as a man, and intricate connections between characters.
Not so much the play, in this case, but the production itself. In addition to the sparkling wit of the script (perhaps Shakespeare’s most timeless romantic comedy) this production is notable even before opening night for two things. First, Brooke Hardman — a woman — is playing Benedick, the male romantic lead. Second, Brooke, co-star Chelsea McCarthy, and their director Alexandra (Sasha) London-Thompson all have a richly tangled, Shakespeare-drenched history together.
I have the pleasure of being tangled in that history too. Chelsea and I are the founders of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, and for the past eight years, Brooke and Sasha have graced us with their acting talent. One or both have appeared in almost half of our 37 productions.
The four of us met after a “Much Ado” rehearsal last week, to discuss women doing Shakespeare, especially these days, and especially on Martha’s Vineyard.
In Renaissance London, men played all the women’s parts, but in a complete reversal, all four of us have recently played men in Playhouse productions of Shakespeare. What’s unusual about this production is the process by which Sasha decided to cast Brooke. Frequently a woman is cast as a man when there aren’t enough male actors available, or to cover double-casting of smaller roles (which sometimes also means men play women). But Brooke was cast as Benedick for a very different reason.
“I initially did a cast list within traditional gender casting,” Sasha explained. “And it was fine. I put it aside for a couple of days, and then I had this idea: What if I cast the actors I would most enjoy seeing play each role? When I took gender off the table for a second and cast the show the way I wanted to cast it, almost everyone suddenly had a different part, and I thought OK, we can change the gender on some of these, but Benedick has to be a man, because gender is such an important theme for him. But I really wanted to see Brooke play the role. So she’s playing him as a male. We’re just presenting the world as we want to see it. Theater is magical that way. When that resulted in people playing characters they wouldn’t conventionally be playing, because of their age or gender or whatnot, we found ways to justify those choices in the storytelling, and I think it’s working.”
Chelsea and Brooke nodded heartily in agreement.
Chelsea added, “When I asked Sasha about who was cast as Benedick, she said, ‘So, we’re going to do something a little different; it’s Brooke, and I hope you’re going to be OK with that,’ and I said, ‘It’s Brooke — of course I want to work with Brooke, she’s going to be amazing.’”
Shakespeare for the Masses is more familiar to year-round Vineyarders than to summer residents, since our mission is specifically to perform theatre in the off-season. We do hourlong versions of the Bard’s work, with tongue-in-cheek adaptations, no sets or lighting, hats for costumes, and with half a day of rehearsal, we perform script in hand. It’s a very different experience from putting on a fully staged production, and the women are savoring the change in pace.
“With Shakespeare for the Masses, it’s such fun, but I barely get to scratch the surface,” Sasha said. “I always feel like I never have the time to prepare in the way that I’d like to.”
“With a real rehearsal process, it’s great being able to take those sad moments, those soft moments, those quiet moments, to take the time to think and breathe with another actor on stage,” Chelsea said. “And when something isn’t quite how we want it, we can say, Oh, wait, we can fix it, we can go back and work on it! That for me is the gift of doing this.”
Brooke agrees: “It’s the luxury of time. It’s always so compressed with Shakespeare for the Masses, which is part of what’s so fun about it. You just have to jump off the cliff because there are no other options. But at least you know you’re jumping with your friends. Here, we get to take it to the next level.”
“Much Ado About Nothing”: Tisbury Amphitheatre, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 5 pm, July 14 – August 13. For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.