Shakespeare, as they like it

Century High students are doing the Bard's 16th-century play with 1960s and 1970s touches

November 12, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun reporter

A group of Century High School students has set out to prove that Shakespeare is, well, groovy, baby.

This week, the school's student Shakespeare troupe, the Rude Mechanicals, is putting on its first full-length play: As You Like It. But amid 16th-century prose, the troupe has slipped in a taste of the 1960s and 1970s, complete with bell bottoms, James Taylor and peace signs.

The result: A world where "fair princess" and "baby" - not the infant kind - are uttered in nearly the same breath. Where talk of swords and banishment mingles with guns and free love. Where the Age of Elizabeth meets the Age of Aquarius.

The performances, which run Thursday to Saturday, represent a considerable accomplishment for a group that grew from makeshift, student-run practices at homes four years ago to after-school rehearsals in the auditorium with music and acting coaches.

"We're just trying to share Shakespeare throughout the community," said Tom Delise, an English teacher at the Winfield school who directs the troupe.

In the Rude Mechanicals' version of As You Like It, Rosalind, the daughter of an exiled duke, doesn't stop at saying, "My affection cannot be sounded, for it hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal," when describing her love for a man named Orlando.

She breaks into song.

"You're just too good to be true," sings Rosalind, played by senior Andrea Irons, 17. "Can't take my eyes off of you." A hippie chorus line joins her as backup.

The troupe sprang out of Delise's Shakespeare class. He sees the Rude Mechanicals - which, along with an adult acting company, forms the Shakespeare Factory, an organization dedicated to teaching Shakespeare through performance - as a way to change how people think of the Bard's works.

"The language is a bit of a barrier for most audiences," Delise said. "Their initial reaction to Shakespeare is like a gag reflex."

He remembers his struggles with the centuries-old texts.

"I was terrible at teaching it," Delise said, recalling the days when his lesson plans involved reading each act, then testing his students. "I hated it. They hated it."

A workshop on teaching Shakespeare with performance changed that. He threw out all of his materials - "every test, quiz, boring worksheet" - and had his students act out the comedies and tragedies.

When he saw girls crying as they watched classmates perform the murder of Desdemona in Othello, he knew it was the way to go, Delise said.

His students pushed for more. They met after school. That led to a troupe of about 10 in 2003, Delise said. As more drama students entered the scene, they began performing publicly, putting on dinner theater shows at Baldwin's Station and at Fairhaven, a retirement community.

Now the Rude Mechanicals consist of about 20 members, several of them juniors and seniors. Their ambition has grown, too: from selected scenes for dinner theater to a six-minute Hamlet and humorous Shakespearean sketches last year, and then to an entire play.

Even as they move toward more unadulterated Shakespeare, Delise and the troupe have kept their audience in mind.

In As You Like It, a scene opens on the exiled duke's band of followers, sitting in a forest of bright orange, yellow and green leaves. One man, a lord named Amiens, sings.

"How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?" asks senior Megan Crampton, 17, channeling Bob Dylan in the form of the 16th-century character.

Wearing round sunglasses, a green tie-dye shirt and brown sandals, Amiens perches on a tree stump, as the rest lounge around with baskets of food and wine. "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind."

"More, more, I prithee, more," one of the men, dressed like a beatnik poet, says as the song ends. "Come, warble."

Amiens starts another of the many modern songs woven into the intricate pattern of Elizabethan language: "Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. ... But I always thought that I'd see you again."

Although Crampton and other students said mastering the antiquated prose presented a challenge, many said they enjoyed Shakespeare - and making his works more accessible to their peers.

"We're able to make it easy for them to understand," said Celia Croft, 17, a senior in the role of Celia, the exiled duke's niece. "You learn that it's not as scary as it seems."

Junior Robert O'Neal, 15, who plays the pessimistic Jaques, a friend to the banished royal, said the group has worked to highlight the play's humor.

"There are a lot of people who don't see how funny it can be," O'Neal said.

That comedy should aid Delise in his quest to cultivate a communitywide interest in Shakespeare, from elementary-school pupils to the elderly.

Last year, the Rude Mechanicals performed for more than 3,000 people, Delise said. The troupe also helped conduct a Shakespeare camp for about 60 third- through ninth-graders this past summer. Students have helped plan library workshops and have taught at elementary and middle schools, Delise said.

Eventually, the English teacher would like to do "pure Shakespeare."

But for now, he and the Rude Mechanicals will allow the 5th Dimension to "let the sunshine in" and help the Bard get his point across.

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

The Rude Mechanicals will present "As You Like It" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the auditorium at Century High School, 355 Ronsdale Road, Sykesville. Tickets are $6.

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