Breaking the Bard

Shakespeare for the Masses keeps the work relevant and fresh.



When presenting the plays of William Shakespeare there are two approaches — either let the language stand and allow people to decipher some of the more difficult passages in order to follow the action, or translate into modern English so that the many plot twists can be easily understood. Shakespeare for the Masses, the Vineyard troupe of talented actors, has found some middle ground by keeping all of the Bard’s beautiful, poetic, often witty language intact, while heightening the experience with some interjected commentary to keep the audience in the know.

For the past 14 years, S for the M has been bringing highly entertaining and educational performances to Vineyarders through their popular series of partially staged readings. For the most part, these productions have been hosted by the sponsoring organization, Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, at its Vineyard Haven theater. This summer, with the indoor stage shuttered for the season, the troupe will be setting up at the Playhouse’s outdoor Amphitheater location, as well as traveling around the Island with two plays — one a tragedy (“Macbeth”) and one a comedy (“Measure for Measure”).

For the 2021 series, the creators Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy have extended their typical one-hour running time a bit to around 75 minutes, added more action scenes, and included costumes and props. Most of the dialogue is delivered off-book, meaning without referring to the script in hand, which allows the actors more freedom of movement and the audience a more natural experience. For those already familiar with the longstanding series, it’s sort of Shakespeare for the Masses 2.0.

Currently, the group of six actors is presenting one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, “Macbeth.” With sword fighting (expertly choreographed by John Robichau and Mac Young), witches doing their witchy thing, stabbings — complete with stage blood and, in classic S for the M tradition, lots of humor gleaned from the text as well as thrown into the mix. With the added material, audiences are kept fully engaged while the actors faithfully deliver some of the most powerful dialogue and speeches in the English language with consummate skill and commitment.

Shakespeare for the Masses tagline is “quick and painless, and free,” but even those who have seen or read the plays multiple times will find something new and exciting in the group’s productions. Anyone who might be put off by the language (early modern English), and the poetic construction of the dialogue will find the S for the M productions to be a great introduction to the work.

“We’re all Shakespeare nerds,” says Chelsea McCarthy, who along with series co-creator Nicole Galland adapts the work to the group’s unique format. “We want people who are well-versed in the work to enjoy the experience, while those who are less familiar, maybe even fearful of Shakespeare, can get into the show.”

Of course a great cast, who have truly immersed themselves in the material and have an understanding and passion for the work of the Bard, is key to a successful production. The S for the M troupe are well-suited to the task. Most of the actors have been along for the ride ever since the troupe formed in 2008. The others have been involved for a number of years. All are versed in Shakespeare, and have extensive experience in the theater. McCarthy and Young, who plays the title character, have been involved with the Playhouse since they were kids participating in the theater’s Summer Stars Camp. McCarthy has appeared in just about every Shakespeare production at the Amphitheater, and has twice directed the yearly productions. Young is a Boston-based actor who grew up on the Island, and recently returned full-time due to the pandemic.

Amy Sabin Barrow (Lady Macbeth), like McCarthy and Young, is a longtime veteran of Shakespeare at the Amphitheater productions, and an original member of the S for the M series. She’s become adept at working with earlier productions’ limits on staging, costumes, and props, and is excited to have more latitude this time around. “We’re fully staging the critical scenes — the fights, the stabbing, the banquet, the sleepwalking scene,” she says. “This format really tells the story in such a great way.”

Jonah Lipsky has appeared in many Amphitheater productions, as well as on the Playhouse’s main stage. Hallie Brevetti and Lagan Trieschmann, the most recent additions to the troupe, have proven that they can hold their own with the established cast members while bringing something original to the productions.

Scott Barrow, another S for the M alum, is currently starring in the Amphitheater production of “Every Brilliant Thing.”

Says Galland, who is currently in Ireland working on her latest book (she and McCarthy have been collaborating on the S for the M productions via Skype during Galland’s absence): “The entire Playhouse season and half the staff of the MVFF are an extraordinary cohort, a tight-knit group that is the new generation of cultural leaders on the Island. There is an amazing team of creatives in their 40s who all know each other, who are defining and enriching the film/theater scene here.”

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