Nina Lee, left, and Aislinn Brophy rehearse a scene from “Playing Mercury” – a comedy based loosely on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” – in a field at Horsepower Farm in Penobscot. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The best set designs in live theater can transport audiences, sometimes to far-flung places, sometimes to more intimate settings. Elsinore castle in “Hamlet.” A 1930s Alabama courthouse in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Rarer, though, are the occasions where productions are staged in site-specific settings, often outdoors, forming a marriage between venue and source material.

When Deer Isle native Marvin Merritt IV returned to Maine during the pandemic and founded a theater company with his friend and Harvard University classmate Anna Fitzgerald, one of their goals was to bring theater to non-traditional places.

Part of their thinking was practical. Their company, Isle Theater, doesn’t have a home stage.

But that wasn’t the only consideration.

“I think a lot about how many theaters make massive sets that they just throw away,” Merritt said. “So, we go out and find these beautiful locations that are already set up for us. We’re not having to build a bunch of stuff. In a time of sustainability, that’s an important conversation a lot of theaters could be having.”


Isle Theater will stage its latest production, a medieval-period comedy written by Fitzgerald called “Playing Mercury,” at Horsepower Farm, a working organic vegetable farm in the Hancock County town of Penobscot, for eight shows, starting Thursday and running through Aug. 14.

Playwright Anna Fitzgerald confers with actor Drew Cleveland during a rehearsal of “Playing Mercury,” a comedy based loosely on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Fitzgerald, who lives in San Diego, said she didn’t have a specific venue in her head when she was writing her play, which is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” But she fell in love with the farm and has been tweaking her script to match the quirks of the setting.

“This farm is so unique, and we get to use the space not just as a façade,” she said.

This is the third summer Isle Theater has produced a site-specific show in Hancock County. The first year, 2020, it was offered only digitally, because of the pandemic, but was staged at Moss Ledge Cottage in Deer Isle. Last year, the company brought another play written by Fitzgerald, “Do Not Move Stones,” to the Settlement Quarry in Stonington. More than 1,000 people attended over three dates.

Merritt said the support from donors and audiences so far has been strong, and he hopes eventually to grow the theater at a time when performing arts organizations are struggling to re-establish or even reinvent themselves after prolonged shutdowns and to assuage more cautious audiences.

“One of the hardest sells is telling people to go inside and sit in a dark theater,” he said.



The dirt road to Horsepower Farm, off Route 15 on the Blue Hill peninsula, leads to a massive elm tree that looms over an old white farmhouse.

Chickens scurry around. Cows moo in the distance. There are greenhouses full of vegetables growing and a small building that serves as a farm stand. 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, when people resettled here for a quieter lifestyle. Paul was a founding member of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, and their property has a conservation easement that ensures it will remain farmland forever.

The farm is now managed by their son, Andrew, and his wife Donna, and by their son, Drew, and his wife Meghan, and is still powered by horses.

Andrew and Donna are Merritt’s uncle and aunt, and he has fond memories of spending holidays on the property as a child. When he asked if they would consider letting his theater company take over the farm for a few weeks this summer, they didn’t hesitate.


“We enjoy playing 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 a short walk from the farmhouse to an open rectangular field shielded on all sides by mature trees. The temperature was in the mid-80s, and there was no refuge from the afternoon sun, so actors huddled under a small canopy tent whenever they could.

Director Marvin Merritt IV, front left, a 10th generation Mainer, confers with cast members on the set of “Playing Mercury,” a comedy based loosely on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Merritt directed from there, with Fitzgerald, who also plays Agnes, close by offering suggestions on specific line reads.

Fitzgerald wrote “Playing Mercury,” using Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” as inspiration. The story is similar, and most characters even have the same names, but the language is modernized, and the playwright said patrons don’t need to know Shakespeare to enjoy the show.

The setting at Horsepower Farm is ideal. One of the main characters, Rosalind, ventures away from her castle to the forest, where she encounters her love, Orlando. Because she is in disguise, he doesn’t realize and she coaches him on how to woo her.


The play is part critique of pastoral life, part exploration of gender roles, but it’s a comedy throughout.

During rehearsal, the actors practiced scenes in a marked-off area of the field where stumps have been placed. During production, there will be even more set pieces made from natural elements.

A hundred or so seats will be set up around the area.

Merritt joked that patrons may need to conduct post-show tick checks.


The setting for “Playing Mercury” affords the cast opportunities to be spontaneous, Fitzgerald said, but these aren’t amateurs. Almost all the cast members are working actors, many with ties to Harvard, where Merritt and Fitzgerald met.


The cast is diverse, too, which is important to the Isle Theater founder. Ruva Chigwedere, who plays Audrey, is a Zimbabwean-born actress based in New York City. 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 didn’t envision coming back to Maine after college. He figured he’d head for New York or Los Angeles, maybe even Europe.

But the pandemic forced his hand.

“One of the things we heard throughout school is that if there aren’t opportunities, make them yourself,” Merritt said.

He became one of many creative artists who returned home to Maine in 2020 and began building something here.

“We’re a small group. Our overhead is low, we have no big expensive theater to maintain, and we’re experimental in the way we’re approaching the work,” he said.


Merritt and Fitzgerald on the set of “Playing Mercury,” a farm in Penobscot owned by Merritt’s relatives. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Last year’s production of “Do Not Throw Stones,” was recognized as best play and best production of the year in Maine by Broadway World, a New York City-based theater website that cover all things Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theater.

The actors cast in “Playing Mercury” agreed that the setting presents some challenges but also brings an authenticity to the production.

In fact, the show opens in front of the Horsepower Farm homestead and barn, which are stand-ins for a castle, where some of the characters originate. When the characters venture away to the forest, the audience will have to follow.

“We’re taking them on a literal journey,” Fitzgerald said.

There is some allegory too. A theme of the play is that characters flee from their problems to an idyllic country setting only to realize that life doesn’t often work out that way.

By staging their shows in non-traditional settings, Merritt, Fitzgerald and the artists involved with Isle Theater also are signaling to audiences that theater doesn’t need to be this stuffy type of performance that requires formal attire or a degree in drama.

Besides, Merritt said, “People come to Maine to be outside in the summer.

“We have this immense beautiful space. Why not use it?”

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