Is it a well-kept secret or knavishly common knowledge that attending plays — in particular Shakespeare — in the Tisbury Amphitheater above the Tashmoo Overlook is one of the purest delights of a Vineyard summer? Of course you must bring bug spray, you pray it’s not too hot or humid on the afternoon you plan to attend, and you’ll want to pack a picnic, your choice of libation between you and Bacchus (on whom Shakespeare’s revelers frequently call).
This summer the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse brings us “The Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) [revised]” by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, and directed by Matt Andrews. In the program, Mr. Andrews draws from a George S. Kaufman quote, “The trouble with Shakespeare is that you never get to sit down unless you’re a king.” This non-sitting turns to antic hopping when the players, in this case a dauntless trio — Scott Barrow, Christopher Kann, and Chelsea McCarthy — are entrusted with the 1,122 roles in the combined 37 plays of Shakespeare’s canon.
Shakespeare scholars, unless they’re too highfalutin’, will know this compression of all the works is pure, slapstick fun, as witnessed to by the little kids on hand, delighted by the pratfalls and loving the hilariously short shrifts given to the plotlines. “Romeo and Juliet” receives a good 12 minutes of play, but such words as “buzzkill” and “free beer” zing through the dialogue. Swords are drawn — always with a comic flyaway rubber scabbard, Tybalt dies, Romeo is “banish-ED” — those same Shakespeare scholars will get a chuckle out of “banish-ED” — and in a moment of sheer directorial genius, Scott Barrow as Juliet in a wiggly wig, lavender dress, and lavender sneakers, launches “herself” into the upper boughs of a tree halfway up the amphitheater. “What are you doing?!” cries Romeo. “The balcony scene!” screeches Juliet, with an unspoken, “You idiot!”
A quick debrief covers “Titus Andronicus,” William’s first play on the London boards, full of blood and gore and, uncannily, his greatest hit, dictating, of course, his lifelong quest to keep the thrills and chills coming. The three actors stage “Othello” in dark shades and baseball caps, rapping out the broad strokes of the story in minutes. Next come all 16 comedies presented as One Epic Comedy, served up with all the trimmings, including twins separated by shipwrecks and general thuggery. “I had no idea Shakespeare was such a perv,” comments one of the players.
There’s a dash through “The Scottish Play.” Don’t call it “Macbeth” or you’ll invite a curse, until you realize it’s OK to call it by its rightful name if you’re actually IN a production of it. At the end, Macbeth’s head in the form of a painted basketball is kicked into the bushes.
“Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” are quickly dispatched with Mr. Barrow in an Egyptian headdress and bearing a rubber asp. Mr. Barrow plays all the female parts, in wigs that fall off and dresses with matching sneakers. In Shakespeare’s day the boys playing girls were trained to be believably feminine. In “The Complete Works” this old saw is tossed away like one of the rubber scabbards.
The histories are presented as sports because, after all, the crown is passed down and around and sideways like a football. The hunchback Richard III enjoys his half-second with the crown until at last Henry VIII decrees, “This looks like a win for the Tudor dynasty!”
Intermission is followed by attention paid to “Hamlet,” although the actors are reluctant to take it on — maybe another day? Oddly enough, just at this comical impasse, nature herself, on the afternoon this reporter attended the play, produced some atmospherics: Cue the noisy gaggle of geese flying overhead and, a moment later, a tumult of wind soaring, then dying away. Enter the Prince of Denmark, played by Ms. McCarthy. Mr. Barrow’s Ophelia is a whiny Valley girl, Mr. Kann as Hamlet’s father’s ghost in a white sheet backs away and bumps into a wall. Hamlet and Horatio exchange gangsta daps, and further merriment ensues.
And then all of a sudden Mr. Barrow — free of Ophelia’s wig and threads — inhabits Hamlet in the speech that begins, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” Because this man just happens — like the others — to be a wonderful actor, he decants this brilliant soliloquy on melancholy, culminating in ”And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” He speaks the speech “trippingly on the tongue,” with utter sincerity, no irony, no face plants in the ivy. For a minute we enjoy Shakespeare qua Shakespeare, and it’s a heavenly experience.
Toward the end, the players go nuts with the audience, dividing us into cheerleading teams, all denoting the layers of Ophelia’s unconscious. The front row waves arms back and forth and muses loudly, “Maybe … maybe not.” Section A shouts as the voice of the young lady’s superego: “Get thee to a nunnery!” Section B channels Ophelia’s “internal ho” or libido: “Paint an inch thick!” And Section C declares, “Cut the crap, Hamlet, my biological clock is ticking. I want babies now!”
At last Mr. Barrow shouts “Stop!” A young woman brought downstage to represent poor Ophelia is instructed to scream. She obliges with the squeak of Minnie Mouse. Well done! All the while, Mr. Barrow as Ophelia has been charging in and out to re-enact the drowning scene, gargling a chalice of water, another time splashing himself in the face with it, once more pouring it from the top of his wigged head: This bit of giddiness alone is worth the price of admission.
Is it possibly time for the Playhouse to consider bringing back the actual plays, one at a time, especially [could I put in a timid vote for] “Hamlet”? The mindfulness of the “lost mirth” monologue can’t help but remind us that, all fun aside, the real tent of Shakespeare is also worth pitching for an audience of campers, always avid to experience the bard of the ages.
We don’t need no Kenneth Branagh: Barrow, Kann, and McCarthy have the chops for it.
“The Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) [revised]” through August 15, Wednesday through Saturday starting at 5 pm at Tisbury Amphitheater, Tashmoo Overlook on State Road in Vineyard Haven. Tickets available at the door, cash only. Adults $20, students $10. Performances are canceled only if there is a thunderstorm or a downpour at show time.