Which four art thou Juliet? That’s the question audiences will be confronted by in the upcoming production of “Romeo and Juliet” by the popular Shakespeare for the Masses (S for the M), a comedic troupe that performs lively staged readings of the popular playwright’s work on Martha’s Vineyard.
It’s every actress’ dream to play Juliet, according to S for the M co-founder and writer Chelsea McCarthy. To accommodate that ambition, Ms. McCarthy and her co-writer Nicole Galland have opted to cast four of the five actors participating in the upcoming production in the coveted role. As a matter of fact, those four will interchange in all of the roles, except for Romeo. “It’s basically going to be like Boggle, where you shake them up and see where they land,” says Ms. McCarthy, who promises that the role changes will be done in such a way that the audience can easily follow the action.
There will, however, be only one Romeo, and the lucky actor who gets to woo four Juliets is Brian Ditchfield.
Should be interesting. But then, everything that Shakespeare for the Masses does is interesting and unconventional. Since 2008, Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Galland have been shaking up Shakespeare, using a number of creative devices to make the Bard palatable for everyone. Though they never alter any of the text, the co-writers cut out some of the less vital scenes, trim some of the speeches, add some often humorous narration, and throw in fun elements. For example, previous shows have featured a dance-off, a crowd scene made up of balloon heads with faces and — well, you name it, S for the M has probably done it.
“Shakespeare for the Masses has certainly done insane things before,” says Ms. McCarthy. “Sometimes the craziest stuff is the stuff that works, and sometimes it’s what makes people say, ‘What were you thinking?’”
More often than not, it works. Case in point: S for the M’s last outing was a production of “King John” featuring a Trump-like character in the lead. This timely version of the play proved so popular that the troupe was asked to do an encore performance on the Vineyard, and was invited to present the play at a church in Lexington.
“Romeo and Juliet” will be the second and final outing for the S for the M players this year. The group only operates in the off-season, when local actors are more available and entertainment options somewhat scarce. Generally the group stages three or four productions each season, but things have gotten a little more complicated since Ms. Galland relocated to the Boston area last year.
“When we were first putting these shows together nine years ago, we got together three or four times a week to go over every single word, painstakingly,” says Ms. McCarthy. “We thought, ‘Can we still do this? Is this still going to feel the same?’ Skype solves everything.”
So far, the writers have presented dozens of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the years. “We’ve actually worked our way through two-thirds to three-quarters of Shakespeare’s canon,” says Ms. McCarthy. There have even been some repeats, but the group has never before tackled “Romeo and Juliet,” arguably Shakespeare’s most well-known play.
“We find that the better the show, the harder it is for us to come up with a reason for cutting text and coming up with funny bits,” Ms. McCarthy explains the omission. “We like to put our stamp on something and have a reason for doing it. We thought, What do we have to say about ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that hasn’t been said before? People know the show.”
Luckily, Ms. Galland and Ms. McCarthy know the show very well. Both have taken on roles in past productions of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s summer Amphitheater series. They have been able to dissect the show thoroughly and create a comprehensive abridged version. “We don’t really need to get into every aspect,” says Ms. McCarthy. “The things that people want to see are the big scenes, the things that Shakespeare for the Masses focuses on. You’ll get the balcony scene, the fights, the marriage.”
And, of course, there’s the language. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ represents some of the most beautiful, romantic, poetic storytelling ever,” says Ms. McCarthy. “The emotions are running at 11 all the time. Everybody’s running at crazy, high, passionate emotion the whole time — whether it’s love, passion, hate, jealousy, fear. That’s the reason that it’s one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays.”
High energy is something that Shakespeare for the Masses does so well. And with four Juliets, the audience will get to enjoy the considerable acting chops of a very talented cast of S for the M regulars. Juliet, et al., will be played by Ms. McCarthy, Molly Purves, Jill Macy and — for a real change of pace — Chris Roberts.
“Other than Brian, who’s our stalwart Romeo, everyone gets a crack at Juliet,” says Ms. McCarthy.
“Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare for the Masses runs Saturday, April 1, at 7 pm and Sunday, April 2, at 1 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Visit mvplayhouse.org.