The best set designs in live theater can transport audiences to far-flung places, sometimes to more intimate settings. Elsinore Castle in Hamlet. Alabama courthouse in the 1930s from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
More rare, however, are occasions where the work is staged in a specific location (usually outdoors), forming a bond between the site and the source material.
When Kashima native Marvin Merritt IV returned to Maine during the pandemic and started a theater company with his friend and Harvard classmate Anna Fitzgerald, their One of the goals was to bring theater to unconventional places.
Some of their ideas are practical. Their company, Isle Theatre, doesn’t have a home stage.
But that’s not the only consideration.
“I think a lot about how many theaters make a lot of sets and they just throw them away,” Merritt said. “So, we went out and found these beautiful places that were already set up for us. We didn’t have to build a bunch of stuff. In the age of sustainability, this is an important conversation that many theatres may have.”
The Isle Theatre will present its latest production, a medieval comedy by Fitzgerald called “Playing Mercury,” at Horsepower Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Penobscot Township, Hancock County, starting Thursday and continuing until August. 14.
Fitzgerald, who lives in San Diego, said she didn’t have a specific location when she wrote the play, which is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Wish.” But she fell in love with the farm and has been tweaking her script to fit the quirks of the environment.
“The farm is so unique that we could use the space as a facade,” she said.
This is the third Summer Island Theater to produce a location-specific show in Hancock County. The first year, 2020, was only available digitally due to the pandemic, but was staged at Moss Ledge Cottage in Kashima. Last year, the company brought another Fitzgerald play, Don’t Move the Stones, to the Settlement Quarry in Stonington. More than 1,000 people attended the three dates.
Donor and audience support has been strong so far, Merritt said, and he hopes to eventually grow the theater and appease a more cautious audience at a time when performing arts organizations struggle to rebuild or even reinvent themselves after a prolonged shutdown.
“One of the hardest sales pitches is telling people to walk in and sit in a dark theater,” he said.
The dirt road to Horsepower Farm is off Route 15 on the Blue Mountains peninsula, leading to a huge elm tree that looms over an old white farmhouse.
Chickens are running around. Cows moo in the distance. There are greenhouses full of vegetables and a small building used as a farm stand. The locals know it well.
The 350-acre farm was founded in the early 1970s by Paul and Mollie Birdsall, who were part of Maine’s back-to-the-land movement as people resettled here for a quieter lifestyle. Paul is a founding member of the Blue Mountains Heritage Trust and their property has a conservation easement ensuring it will always be farmland.
The farm is now run by their sons Andrew and his wife Donna and their sons Drew and his wife Meghan, and is still powered by horses.
Andrew and Donna are Merritt’s uncles and aunts, and he has fond memories of spending holidays at the property as a child. When he asked them if they would consider letting his theater company take over the farm for a few weeks this summer, they didn’t hesitate.
“We love taking an active role in our community and look forward to introducing new friends and neighbors to our farm,” Donna Birdsall said. “Hopefully our animals will feel the same way.”
Last week, the cast and crew of “Playing Mercury” gathered for rehearsal.
The main “stage” is located from the farmhouse to an open rectangular field shaded on all sides by mature trees. With temperatures in the mid-80s and no shelter from the afternoon sun, the cast huddled under a small canopy whenever they got the chance.
Merritt directed from there, with Fitzgerald also playing Agnes, and finally offered advice on specific line readings.
Fitzgerald’s “Playing as Mercury” was inspired by Shakespeare’s “As You Wish.” The stories are similar, and most of the characters even have the same names, but the language has been modernized, and the playwright says audiences don’t need to know Shakespeare to enjoy the show.
The environment at Horsepower Farm is ideal. Rosalind, one of the main characters, ventures out of her castle to the forest, where she meets her love, Orlando. Because she is in disguise, he doesn’t realize, she instructs him how to woo her.
The show is part critique of pastoral life and part exploration of gender roles, but it’s comedy throughout.
During rehearsals, actors practice scenes in delimited areas of the field where tree stumps are placed. During the production process, there will be more sets made of natural elements.
A hundred or so seats will be set up around the area.
Merritt joked that customers may need to do post-show tick checks.
Fitzgerald said the “Playing Mercury” scene offered actors spontaneous opportunities, but none of these were amateurs. Almost all of the actors are working actors, many of whom have ties to Harvard where Merritt and Fitzgerald met.
The cast is also diverse, which was important to the founders of the Isle Theatre. Ruva Chigwedere plays Audrey, a Zimbabwean actress born in New York. Joe Sterrey, who plays Orlando, is based in Atlanta but was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia.
Merritt, who graduated from Deer Isle-Stonington High School in 2016, said he did not expect to return to Maine after college. He thinks he’ll go to New York or Los Angeles, maybe even Europe.
But the pandemic forced him to do it.
“One of the things we’ve heard throughout the school is, if there’s no opportunity, create it yourself,” Merritt said.
He becomes one of many creative artists to return to Maine in 2020 and start creating here.
“We’re a small group. Our overhead is low, we don’t have expensive big theaters to maintain, and we’re trying to do things the way we do,” he said.
Last year’s production of “Don’t Throw Stones” was named Maine’s Play of the Year and Best Production by Broadway World, a New York City-based theater site that covers everything from Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theaters.
The cast of “Playing Mercury” agreed that the setting presented some challenges, but it also brought authenticity to the production.
In fact, the show begins in front of the Horse Power Farm homestead and barn, which are stand-ins for the castle from which some of the characters come from. As the characters venture into the forest, the audience will have to follow.
“We’re taking them on a real journey,” Fitzgerald said.
There are also some fables. A theme of the show is that the characters escape from their problems into an idyllic rural setting, only to find that life doesn’t always work that way.
By performing in a non-traditional setting, Merritt, Fitzgerald, and the artists involved in the Isle Theatre also signal to audiences that the theatre doesn’t need to be the stuffy type of show that requires formal attire or a degree in theatre.
In addition, Merritt said, “People come to Maine to go out in the summer.
“We have this huge and beautiful space. Why not use it?”
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