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Shakespeare for the Masses

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from left, Molly Purves, Rob Myers, Chelsea McCarthy, Xavier Power, Amy Sabin Barrow, Jill Macy, Brooke Hardman Ditchfiel and Chris Roberts. -Photo by Maria Thibodeau

The seventh season of Shakespeare for the Masses got off to a great start with two standing-room-only performances of Richard III last weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. The condensed hourlong play included all of the famous speeches, and injected humor, pantomime, and a highly opinionated narrator to tell the rest. It proved a comical, user-friendly introduction to Shakespeare, setting the stage for a successful rest of the season. Visit vineyardplayhouse.org for information on upcoming shows.

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Shakespeare for the Masses returns this week with “Richard III.”

From left, Jill Macy, Peter Stray (blindfolded) and Brian Ditchfield perform at a past Shakespeare for the Masses performance. – Courtesy of Sally Isenberg Cohn

Shakespeare. Stilted? Sour? Stumped? Not at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. The creative comedic duo of Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy ignite their seventh season of  Shakespeare for the Masses with the tragic antihero’s political drama “Richard III” this Saturday and Sunday.
Shakespeare for the Masses has successfully introduced winter and summer audiences to the complex poetry of Shakespearean drama since 2008. Nicole Galland directed Chelsea McCarthy in the first amphitheater performance of “Hamlet,” and over the past six seasons, Ms. McCarthy has become a full-time co-creator and co-director. “Our process begins with the text,” says Ms. Galland. “About 40 hours of editing the narrative, and lots of back and forth of figuring out the devices to render a play user-friendly to people who don’t typically ‘do’ Shakespeare.”

Chelsea McCarthy and Mac Young wield swords at a past Shakespeare for the Masses performance. – Photo by Nicole Galland
Chelsea McCarthy and Mac Young wield swords at a past Shakespeare for the Masses performance. – Photo by Nicole Galland

Everyone of all ages should come see ‘Richard III,’” says MJ Bruder Munafo, executive artistic director of the Playhouse. “Especially if you think you don’t like Shakespeare. These ‘readings’ are silly and intelligent and easy to follow and lots of laughs. And really short — around an hour long. So it’s a perfect intro to the Bard.”
Ms. Galland explained that after a lively exchange of Skyping, typing, and navigating the exposition, “we manage to cut the play to an hour, often adding a narrator to relate the backstory, and illustrate the text through pantomime scenes.”
With a deep respect for Shakespeare, Ms. Galland said, their approach allows for an audience to relax, laugh, and experience the play as entertainment rather than an exercise of English dramaturgy: “We keep all the great scenes, famous speeches, but remove all the connective tissue with as much humor as possible.” Then, just as the audience forgets to translate the complex couplets and idiosyncratic iambic pentameter, Ms. Galland says, “we can stop in the middle and have those profound moments; at that point the audience is ready to give us their heart and mind and experience the brilliance of what Shakespeare is.”
“Richard III,” set in 16th century England, opens with the iconic line “Now is the winter of our discontent …” yet few know much more of the antihero who plots a coup d’etat to usurp his brother’s rule and win the throne. Richard is a villain who is both cunning and terribly ingenious, a soul brother of House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood (played seamlessly in Netflix’s hit drama by Kevin Spacey). Like Underwood, Richard addresses and confides in the audience directly, drawing us into his conniving tactics.
Ms. Galland commented on the magnetic quality of her antihero: “Richard III breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, somehow making us his accomplices. He is that honestly dishonest politician, and given what we are dealing with in D.C., this nefarious character is someone we should know and study.” For Shakespeare, the power politics of royal authority was a theme the master returned to again and again.
Editing Shakespeare is a common yet dicey game, but Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy have captured the essence of the theme without sacrificing the essential moments of what makes Shakespeare relevant across the centuries. “This is a fun, enjoyable happening, as opposed to ‘Shakespeare.’ As an Islander, I know how important it is to laugh in the winter. We work with a group of professional actors who can come in, and with only a few hours of rehearsal, make something really exciting happen,” said Ms. Galland.
Ms. Bruder Munafo warmly welcomes the production to the Patricia Neal Stage. “The Playhouse loves providing a free offering on the stage during the winter,” she says. “We started the series a few years ago when nobody could afford a ticket, and the tradition has held. The performers donate their time, the theater donates its resources; and so it is truly a labor of love and goodwill.”
The company that have loyally performed the words of Shakespeare to the new tune arranged by Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy are working professionals, actors, and parents. Yet they are true to the tradition of the Swan Theater players, who performed for the common man and the Queen, where the main aim of Shakespeare was to tell stories, relevant and digestible for all.

Political infighting, scheming politicians, love, jealousy, power plays and ruthless egos — sound familiar? Richard III is a man of our age as much as he was in the 16th century, and Shakespeare for the Masses is ready to make the entertaining introduction.

Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and Shakespeare for the Masses present “Richard III.”
Saturday, 7:30 pm. Sunday, 3:30pm, free. No reservations, open seating.
Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church Street, Vineyard Haven.
www.mvplayhouse.org
The all-Island cast includes Amy Sabin Barrow, Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, Nicole Galland, Jill Macy, Chelsea McCarthy, Rob Myers, Xavier Powers, Molly Purves, and Chris Roberts as Richard.

Shakespeare for the Masses presents free, fun, and shortened versions of the Bard's plays. Pictured is Billy Meleady and Brooke Hardman. — Photo by Nicole Galland

The Vineyard Playhouse presents another installment of Shakespeare for the Masses, organized and edited by Chelsea McCarthy and Nicole Galland and performed by a group of actors. There are two shows scheduled: Saturday, Feb. 15, at 7 pm, and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2 pm, both at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

The only Shakespeare play ever banned by a democratic government, according to a press release, “Coriolanus” is a “startlingly contemporary tale about political intrigue, political spin doctors, political treachery…and, as with any story involving proto-fascism, the importance of motherhood,” the press release continued. Admission is free. For more information, call 508-693-6450 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.