The play's the thing for Carroll youngsters

Actors: Elementary school pupils prove to be surprisingly adept at grasping and performing Shakespeare's challenging `Hamlet.'

April 27, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Asked to summarize the plot of "Hamlet," 11-year- old Elizabeth Kahney knotted her brow and struggled to think of the right words.

"Well ... it's Shakespearean," Elizabeth said, pausing long enough to make a grownup think it was utterly ridiculous that a fifth-grader could begin to grasp one of William Shakespeare's darkest and most complex plays.

Then she spoke, and it became apparent that the Sandymount Elementary School pupil's problem was not that she didn't know the play. She knew it too well. "It's about a whole bunch of different things," she said finally. "Death. Murder. Hatred."

Less than 10 minutes later, Elizabeth was on stage in the play's title role. Dressed in black tights and a belted white shirt, she flawlessly delivered famous lines such as, "O, that this too sullied flesh would melt," and "Get thee to a nunn'ry" and otherwise embodied the brooding, tortured Hamlet who sought to avenge his father's murder at his uncle's hands.

The words belonged to Shakespeare, although some of the trappings of "Hamlet" performed yesterday morning by the Carroll County school's fifth-graders were less than traditional. The play was streamlined to run 90 minutes, not its usual four hours.

Extra characters and scenes such as one that included dancing around a maypole were added to accommodate the 50 pupils who wanted to participate. The adult themes and allusions to suicide and incest from "Hamlet" were present but not emphasized.

Perhaps most important, enough sword fighting had been added to make the most fidgety third-grader sit up and take notice.

Tom Fitzhugh, an 11-year-old who played Fortinbras, estimated that "Hamlet" is "25 percent killing, 50 percent sword fighting."

"Practically the whole cast dies," cast member Bobby Krauk said with enthusiasm. Bobby, who played Polonius, knows his audience well. Without all the violence, "the audience would probably be asleep," he said.

To be or not to be a fifth-grade Shakespearean actor has been a valid question for the past two years at this Finksburg elementary school where performing a Shakespeare play has become a rite of passage of sorts. Last year, the play was "Romeo and Juliet."

This year, pupils studied "Hamlet" for a month in January before they moved on to acting it. They'll perform the play tonight for parents and at a Shakespeare festival for students at Baltimore's Center Stage next month.

"Something magic happens when kids get to act out their parts," said Andy Yount, a Sandymount guidance counselor who produced and directed the Shakespeare plays at the school. "These kids have an innate sense of what they're doing. They know how Shakespeare meant for his plays to be acted. It just comes naturally."

Yount got the idea of performing Shakespeare with fifth-graders from his father, Tony Yount, a Howard County assistant principal who has been producing Shakespeare plays with his students for more than two decades.

Andy Yount uses the plays to teach pupils character development traits that are part of the curriculum in Carroll schools. "A lot of the play brings in character traits like respect and commitment, teamwork and responsibility," he said.

Traditionally, pupils aren't exposed to Shakespeare's plays and sonnets until junior high or high school, and usually then it is as a text in an English class.

A 1993 study by the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning found that Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Macbeth" ranked as the two most frequently taught books at American public high schools. Shakespeare was the most frequently taught author.

For the past decade, however, a growing movement in education has introduced the Bard to pupils in elementary schools, according to Janet Field-Pickering, head of education at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Field-Pickering said she has noticed a marked increase in queries from teachers about offering Shakespeare to elementary school pupils. "Macbeth" is the most popular Shakespeare play for children, followed by "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo & Juliet" and "The Tempest."

Younger students seem to have an ability to understand Shakespeare's language that adults do not, Field-Pickering added.

"What we've discovered is that younger children are not intimidated by Shakespeare's language," she said. "Younger kids are so used to acquiring new words ... they have much more fun with the language and can discover the meaning and context of words through sound and rhythm."

Elizabeth Kahney, the fifth-grader who played Hamlet, acknowledged that it was difficult to get used to Shakespearean dialogue. Although, "once you learn it, it's pretty easy," she said.

So easy that the director was forced to make up a rule for the cast.

"If you forget a line, you can't make up one that sounds like a Shakespeare line," Elizabeth said with a sigh. "That's the worst part."

Alas, though this be madness, there is method in it.

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