Theater : Shakespeare for the Masses at Playhouse
"Othello," one of the Shakespeare's four great tragedies, will kick off the second season of Shakespeare for the Masses, an off-season series of staged readings presented at the Vineyard Playhouse.
Billed as "quick and painless and free," the plays have been trimmed to around an hour and a half. They are masterfully acted and designed to be lively.
Listening to Chelsea McCarthy and Nicole Galland, the women responsible for the series, it's obvious that while challenged by the necessary adaptations, they are enjoying the project.
The two met three years ago when they were involved in a production of the "Tempest" at the Tisbury Amphitheater. Ms. McCarthy, a veteran of many of the amphitheater's outdoor shows, was starring, while Ms. Galland, who has written three novels and has extensive experience with the theater, served as assistant director. They worked together again the following year when Ms. Galland directed "As You Like It."
They then began to discuss the possibility of bringing the entire Shakespeare canon to Vineyard audiences. Ms. Galland says, "People are scared of Shakespeare. They won't come unless it's something they know."
Trimming the three-and-a-half-hour "Othello" to a workable length for the reading this weekend proved a challenge for the producing/directing/editing team. Ms. Galland notes, "It's beautifully and densely written and we tend to think of it as really streamlined. Getting it down to an hour and a half was excruciating."
Ms. McCarthy seconds that observation, "The language is so clear and precise and tight. Everything is so integral to the character." But both are convinced that the streamlined final version will maintain the integrity and cohesiveness of the complex tragedy.
Ms. McCarthy says, "We're trying to think of it from the point of view of 'for the masses.' The language can be overly florid for the modern ear. A lot of the text is incredibly clear but when it is surrounded by a lot of flowery language, it can get lost. That's the kind of stuff that you see people tuning out on."
The actors are pulled from the talent pool of local performers - the core group numbers around 15, most of whom are veterans of amphitheater productions.
"For "Othello," Ms. Galland recruited Ayad Ahkbar from New York to play the tragic Moor of Venice. Mr. Ahkbar is an accomplished screenwriter and playwright, as well as an acting teacher who works with Andre Gregory. For the role of the sinister, scheming Iago, the women have tapped the talented character actor Billy Meleady. "I think Billy is just going to kill it." Ms. McCarthy says.
And the women make it work. Their partnership of opposites has turned into a winning formula.
Ms. Galland explains: "We realized something last year. I tend to have really exciting ideas and don't follow through. Chelsea only starts what she can complete. I'm good at the initial excitement. She's good at the follow-through, so we balance each out."
Ms. McCarthy says, "The whole process of editing with her has been really seamless. We just fit together nicely."
Ms. Galland says, "One of us does the first pass and highlights the proposed deletions, then we read that version together. The second person reads again and eliminates more and we meet again. The final edit, which is the most ruthless, is where we whine and stamp our feet and cry because we're cutting so much beautiful language."
To further aid in audience comprehension, the women created a character they call Folio, the narrator who introduces the scenes and guides the audience through some of the action. Ms. Galland, in the role of Folio, writes most of the narration, adding a good dose of humor.
After only one full rehearsal, the ensemble manages to present a collaborative effect. Although the actors read from scripts, deaths, stabbings, fights, and lamentations are played out for all they're worth. Minimal costumes and props are used to great effect.
Although there is never a plan in place as to which, or how many plays the troupe will attempt to get through during the off-season, last year the project immediately took on a life of its own. Says Ms. Galland, "After the first show, Chris Brophy suggested that we do 'Macbeth' on Halloween. Once we had the momentum, we just kept going." The troupe staged seven readings last winter.
Next up will be Antony and Cleopatra on October 16 and 17. Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy try not to plan too far ahead and tend to leave the programming up to the fates. Ms. Galland says, "One cast member suggested that we do 'Twelfth Night' on Twelfth Night which is in January. We're always open to suggestions."
So, like the work of the immortal Bard, Shakespeare for the Masses maintains an element of mystery and perhaps a few surprises.
Shakespeare for the Masses begins with "Othello," at The Vineyard Playhouse, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 2 and 3 at 7 pm. A $5 donation is suggested.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.