Love, laughs, and swordplay at the Amphitheater

Benvolio (Hannah McCarthy), Lady Capulet (Laurel Johnson), Lord Montague (Shera Toledo) and Lady Montague (Katie Clarke) watch, stunned by Tybalt's (Nina Smilow) death. — Photo by Meg Higgins

Looking for a summer romance? The most famous feud in literature will be played out to its tragic conclusion for a full month this summer as The Vineyard Playhouse presents “Romeo & Juliet” at the outdoor amphitheater on State Road in Vineyard Haven through August 18.

Tsilala Graham-Haynes as the narrator/prince starts off the play with a skilled delivery of the beautiful opening monologue. Giving a rundown of the story in the famous “pair of star-cross’d lovers” speech, Ms. Graham-Haynes not only sets the stage for the bittersweet tale to unfold, she also gives the audience a taste of the level of young talent that livens up the idyllic amphitheater.

In a gender reversal from the all-male tradition of Shakespeare’s day, director MJ Bruder-Munafo has cast her production entirely with women, many of them very young.

The two leads are taken on by teens who have both, despite their youth, appeared in a number of Vineyard Playhouse productions. High school sophomore Katherine Reid plays Juliet and 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduate Anna Yukevich portrays Romeo, and the two fresh-faced blondes strut the metaphorical boards like seasoned pros.

Ms. Bruder Munafo chose to cast the leads with age appropriate actors (in the play Juliet is only 13, Romeo presumably in his teens). During auditions, she had Ms. Yukevich read the part of Romeo opposite potential Juliets and decided to award her the male lead. A dearth of auditioning men led the director to go with an all-female cast.

Ms. Yukevich is no stranger to male roles. At the tender age of seven she was chosen over the competition to play a boy — the lone child — in The Playhouse’s Christmas show. “She was the only one who could do the lines loud and clear,” says Ms. Bruder Munafo. A true pro, little Ms. Yukevich insisted on cutting her hair short to play a boy. She has since graduated to adult roles and has been seen in two previous amphitheater shows and a number of the Shakespeare for the Masses productions. She most recently shared the stage with Tony Shalhoub, Brooke Adams, and Bob Brustein in one of The Playhouse’s Monday Night Specials readings.

Ms. Yukevich, in tunic and pantaloons, does an exceptional job as Romeo – capturing her character’s boyish humor and playfulness as well as the longing and pathos characterizing the role.

Ms. Reid, like Ms. Yukevich, attended The Playhouse’s summer theater camp throughout her childhood years. She is now a junior counselor. She has appeared in leading roles in the Oak Bluffs School musicals and for the The Playhouse holiday shows for the last few years, and she took part in high school shows in her freshman year.

As Juliet, she alternates between both sweet and innocent and strong and determined, and she does so admirably.

Other standouts in the cast include the aforementioned Ms. Graham-Haynes, who is a newcomer to Island stages, and Chelsea McCarthy as the nurse. The always effective Ms. McCarthy had the audience in stitches on opening night. Liz Michael Hartford as the roguish Mercutio perhaps does the best job managing a male role. The amphitheater veteran captures the macho posturing and bawdy boyishness of her character to a T. The scene where her character torments the nurse is one of the funniest in the production. Laurel Margaret Johnson, another newcomer, does a marvelous job as Juliet’s mother.

Although it’s understandably classed with the tragedies, “Romeo & Juliet” is more accurately a romance with a good dose of comedy, making it perfect summer fare. It doesn’t share a lot of the darker elements of the other tragedies. No one goes mad, there’s no malicious scheming or overblown jealousy, and no convoluted plots. The story and language are easier to follow than in much of the Bard’s work, making it good starter Shakespeare, and the sonnet-rich dialogue provides some of the most beautiful material to be found in English literature. Ms. Bruder-Munafo has shortened the play by cutting out some of the lengthier speeches. The production clocks in at under two hours.

The swordfights, choreographed by John Robichau, are short in this production but skillfully managed. Jihan Ponti as Balthasar does some expert tumbling. The costumes by Donna DeSilva give the show an appropriately Elizabethan feel and the use of all of the natural environs of the amphitheater, including the trees and pathways, make for a fun, authentic Shakespearean experience.

You can catch comedy as well as a drama at the amphitheater this summer. The Playhouse is hosting two Shakespeare productions, running concurrently on alternating nights. “Twelfth Night,” directed by Ms. McCarthy, is a fun romp played out by actors dressed in colorful 60’s prep fashion.

“Romeo & Juliet”, 5 pm, Tisbury Amphitheater, Vineyard Haven. Presented by The Vineyard Playhouse. July 27, Aug. 2, 4, 8, 10, 16, 18. $20; $10 children under 18.; 508-687-2452.