For 10 years now, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse has been offering up a series of dramatic readings called Shakespeare for the Masses. Conceived and created by Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy, the series pares down the plays of the Bard to around an hour, heightens the humor — whether drama or comedy — and incorporates a narrator to fill in the gaps and provide some explanation and commentary.
This weekend, Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy and their regular troupe of actors will present the most problematical of Shakespeare’s problem plays, “Measure for Measure,” for two nights at the M.V. Playhouse. A problem play is characterized by a controversial topic and, generally, Shakespeare has withheld any judgement. “Measure for Measure” deals with puritanical legislation, hypocrisy around moral issues, and sexual harassment, among other things.
Ms. Galland explains the concept of a problem play, which is a more contemporary classification. “Problem play is not a term that existed in Shakespeare’s day. It means that a play sociologically is sort of problematic — not clearly a comedy or clearly a tragedy — and deals with contentious social issues where there’s no cut-and-dry moral universe.”
With this type of ambiguity, the team behind S. for the M. have been given the opportunity to inject some of their own thoughts through the voice of the narrator — or the folio, as they refer to that role.
Ms. Galland, who serves as the folio, says, “Because we have the narrator, we can comment on the plays and take a position on them in a way that the plays themselves can’t.”
And in this case, the creators have a lot to sink their teeth into. The theme of “Measure for Measure” is sort of summed up in one of its classic lines: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy see in the material plenty of opportunities to find parallels in our current state of affairs.
Says Ms. McCarthy: “When we were talking about what we wanted to do this time, ‘Measure for Measure’ just jumped out for us for being so timely. What’s great about this play is that we don’t even really need to point out the similarities to what’s happening today. When we were reworking it, we thought, ‘I can’t believe this is still going on.’”
As always, the creators will add a lot of their considerable wit and humor to the production — without altering any of the dialogue. The S. for the M. team is known for adding some unorthodox elements to the work, and fitting in loads of topical references to the narration.
This is the fourth time that Shakespeare for the Masses has presented “Measure for Measure” to Island audiences. Each time they revisit a play, they rewrite and re-edit the work. This time, the creators found great material to mine for the production. “What makes it fun for us is that there are so many complicated characters, and complicated action and behavior. It’s fun for us and fun for the actors. Sometimes when you see a problem play performed on the stage, the producer has to make a choice which way the show will go. What’s perfect for us is that we don’t have to come up with one answer to what it’s about.”
Adds Ms. Galland, “In general, the plays work better for us when we can draw comparisons. We’ve become more comedically oriented as we’ve become more topical. In the beginning we were so desperate to prove that Shakespeare was relevant and fun. It was always enjoyable for us as Shakespeare nerds, and now I think bringing these shows into current events has made the experience fun for all types of audiences.”
Shakespeare for the Masses’ “Measure for Measure,” Saturday, Jan. 27, at 7 pm and Sunday, Jan. 28, at 1 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Free. Cast includes Anna Yukevich, Molly Purves, Jill Macy, Xavier Powers, Scott Barrow, Chelsea McCarthy, and Amy Sabin Barrow.