For his comedies, William Shakespeare must have had a checklist close by:
Mistaken identity: check!
An evil bastard (literally a bastard): check!
A bunch of witty wordplay: check!
Manipulation of lovers’ affections: check!
Fear of cuckoldry: check!
And, most important, after all the tribulations, a happy ending. That’s a double check for the double love stories of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Every year the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse mounts an outdoor spectacle at the plein air amphitheater at the Tashmoo Overlook. If you’ve never attended one of these theatrical events, then (how to put it gently, in a typically Elizabethan, snide but civil way): You ain’t seen nothin’ yet of the Compleat Vineyard.
Mind you, you must pay attention to full protection to the out-of-doors, with all the emoluments your mother handed you before your weeks at summer camp. Forget the sunscreen, since the performance begins at 5 pm. Some low sun rays will twinkle on your face over the trees, but it’s more annoying than skin-toasting, so bring a hat. It could rain, whereupon the troupe will kindly cancel and let you know by email. Regarding heat, well, that could be punishing even in the late afternoon. This reviewer happened to catch the play last Saturday when it was Sahara-hot, and, not having had the sense to bring a towel, at one point I surreptitiously raised the hem of my sundress to mop my cheeks and forehead.
And, finally, carry bug spray! But don’t let this prospect of evening insect invasion discourage you. Watching a magnificent comedy in the great outdoors is one of the primo treats in life. Just remember to swish your wrists, ankles, and neck with repellent, OK? It doesn’t have to be a heavy pesticidal upgrade of Agent Orange. Look into Avon’s iconic Skin So Soft, which just so happens to smell fresh to us, and icky to insects.
Now to “Much Ado,” because “The play’s the thing!” (Wrong play, right playwright.) At the heart of all the magical farce and goofy mishaps are Beatrice and Benedick, both wittily quarrelsome and quarrelsomely witty, in an age 400 years before Dr. Freud would have diagnosed them as mad for each other. This summer’s production is directed by Alexandra London-Thompson, now living in Connecticut and teaching drama at Miss Porter’s. Ms. London-Thompson played Beatrice herself under the Playhouse aegis exactly 10 years ago, three days after her wedding to Brit actor Peter Stray, who played Benedick. The Bard himself would have swooned over this dramatic arc.
Under Ms. London-Thompson’s polished direction, heaps of praise go to the two leads, Chelsea McCarthy as Beatrice, and Brooke Hardman (yes, a woman playing a man) as Benedick.
Ms. Hardman, possessed of a long list of theater credits, is a resident acting company member of Boston’s Actor’s Shakespeare Project, so she knows her Elizabethan stage. But what powers of talent and observation inspired her to play a guy so well? She sports shoulder-length hair, simple shirts, and slacks. The play is set not in the Messina, Italy, of old, but an invented Messina resort in modern-day Sedona, Calif. Like a cool dude, she slouches and shuffles her way across the floor. She sets her voice to a throaty, wholly believable guy timbre; she shrugs and swivels her head and gestures in that choppy way men have where they would never for a minute worry about flip-flapping upper arm flesh.
And as for Ms. McCarthy, the minute she reclined in an outdoor wicker chair on set, I knew from all her work as co-creator with Nicole Galland of the popular Shakespeare for the Masses that we were in for a treat. And when I saw she was Beatrice, I sat back to enjoy myself (in spite of the heat and the bugs).
Ms. McCarthy, with her lissome figure and waist-length auburn hair, speaks Shakespeare as trippingly from the tongue as Hamlet could ever have wished for his players, but beyond that, she has a gift for physical comedy that is right up there with Lucille Ball’s. You must see this production, if only for the scene when she hides to overhear her homegirls dishing about Benedick’s secret yen for her: She ducks behind trees and shrubs, and finally scooches closer, with a gilt-face Buddha as a shield, until at last, she’s sprawled in the dust, flat out, hilariously brought low even as her spirits soar from Benedick’s apparent crush on her.
Ms. London-Thompson reimagines some of the original parts, so that aristocrat Leonato becomes Leonata (Asha Edwards); evil bastard Don John becomes evil bastard Donna Joan (Katrina Reid), and Don Pedro is Donna Pedra (Meghan Leathers). This is fun on many levels, the chiefest being the sheer zest of rebooting the Elizabethan standard cast of all males, so that nowadays females may play females, of course, but also males.
John Noble Barrack elicits laughs as dimwitted constable Dogberry with marvelous physical comedy of his own. Mikah Baumrin-Daniels is a fetching Margaret, handmaiden to Hero, and Ellie Brellis is a consummately sweet and endearing Hero (so fie on boyfriend Claudio for ever doubting her). Claudio is played to gullible perfection by Matt Greenberg. The misguided Borachio gives Lowes Moore III a chance to portray, within a single character, a dupe, a drunk, a repentant dupe, and then he surprises us all with a luscious ballad from Cyndi Lauper: “I see your true colors shining through …” Nina Moore, Xavier Powers, and Liam Street also shine through the roles of Ursula, Verges, and George Seacole.
“Much Ado” will be playing every Wednesday through Saturday until August 14. You’ll love it, but bring bug spray.
For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.