The rehearsal stage is empty but for six chairs, five actors, and a trunk overflowing with odds and ends. The players introduce themselves to their imaginary audience of school children and begin a presentation of great moments from Shakespeare.
But right in the middle of 'To be or not to be', one of the actors blurts out, "Shakespeare is so boring. . .nothing but kings and queens standing around talking."
Do they really say that on stage? In front of the children?
"This is how Playaround Shakespeare tries to crack the stereotype that Shakespeare has no action, no ordinary people." explains John Neville-Andrews, actor and artistic producer of the Folger Theater Group in Washington, D.C.
Last year when he was asked to talk to school children about Shakespeare, he declined. "I thought more words about words would be dull." But a play, he thought, might be the thing wherein he'd catch the imagination of the kids. He and his associates at the Folger -- Jim Beard, David Cromwell, Michael Howell, and Mikel Lambert -- drew on their experiences acting in over 90 Shakespearean dramas and wrote a script. "Theater by committee takes longer but the results are richer." says Neville-Andrews. And successful in this case, he might add. More bookings in area schools plus a month in residence at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater and a tour through New York State sponsored by the Gannett Foundation.
On Stage, the actors rummage through the trunk and pull out hats, a flute, a measuring tape, and a scroll -- their props and costumes to become the rustic townsmen from A Midsummer Night's Dream who are preparing to cast their own production of Pyramus and Thisbe (the play within the play).
Here is Quince, the director of these probably-never-to be-prime-time players. There is shy Starvling the Tailor, and Flute; and over there, Snug the Joiner who is trying to hide the fact his hand is stuck in a pipe. And of course Bottom, interrupting all the time and trying to hog all the parts for himself.
Bottom stops short. The others, close on his heels, crash into him. Oblivious and with his brow wrinkled with worry, he says, "There are things in this comedy that will never please. First, Pyramus must draw a sword to kill himself which the ladies cannot abide."
At this point, the actors freeze, step out of their roles as rustics, and come down stage to talk to the children about how Shakespeare uses action to tell his story.
"We play a scene and then comment on it." says Neville-Andrews. "Although Bottom is worried about the sword, we explain that Shakespeare often uses sword fights in his plays; sometimes to end a story or sometimes, as in Romeo and Juliet, to begin the tragic action."
The actors return to the trunk and draw out swords. Mercutio taunts Tybalt and they fight. Steel smacks against steel until Mercutio falls. Romeo must avenge his death and thus is drawn into the feud.
"These scenes are meant to be entertaining." says Neville-Andrews. "But the fencing should be more than a good fight; the action as well as the words reflect the characters' feelings. In the duel, Mercutio's playful teasing is contrasted with Tybalt's hard, deep anger."
In this production, the actors are also their own casting directors; they have cast themselves in roles they would not normally play and perform in both minor and major parts "so the children will identify with all the players not just a star, like on T.V." says Neville-Andrews.
On stage, the swords are placed back in the trunk and the actors go back to being rustics. Soon they are stumped again: how will they represent the lion, which, like the sword, may scare the ladies?
The children identify with Bottom, whose worries, thinly disguised as theatrical problems, are not really much different from their own real-life predicament of trying to master their own fears and modify their own wishes to be the first, the best and the biggest."Yet they can laugh at the rustics incompetance because it's fun to see adults act so dumb." says Neville-Andrews.
At this point, the actors explain to the children that Bottom wants to take out all the rage, the passion. But Shakespeare wrote many plays about great men of passion: take Othello for instance. . . .The actors then pantomime the plot leading up to the handkerchief scene.
"We explain the Othello's jealous nature makes him doubt Desdemona's faithfulness but we, the audience, see Iago steal the handkerchief; thus we know more than Othello. That's dramatic irony." says Neville-Andrews. "And that's what makes' the story all the more tragic."
Back in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Quince can't figure out how to represent a wall and moonlight, the props needed for Pyramus and Thisbe. The actors once more step out of role to discuss how they, as actors, can play anything -- a wall, a lion -- if only the audience will suspend their disbelief.
"Live drama depends upon the audience's willingness to collaborate imaginatively." says Neville-Andrews. "For children, the line between illusion and reality is easy to cross; fantasy is their natural home."
On stage, 'imagination' is illustrated by Falstaff and Prince Hal as they take turns pretending they are Henry the fourth. Falstaff, crowed with a hemorrhoid cushion, struts and stumbles amid the drunken company, dqueezing innuendo out of every word. But when Hal assumes the role, he also assumes the authority that will be his someday as king. Do the children understand when Falstaff mockingly begs not to be banished that Hal's answer -- "I do, I will." -- is really a threat?
"No," replies Neville-Andrews. "Our audiences range from third grade through high school so we expect varying levels of understanding. For the younger children, we heighten the meaning with gesture and pantomime. And when we sense the older kids are picking up on the word play, we set up the puns more carefully."
But no one should expect to understand every word in a Shakespeare play he explains. There are long passages that no one knows the meaing of any more and directors routinely urge actors to speak them fast, emphasizing only the words that more the plot along. He points out that A Midsummer Night's Dream is, however, easy to understand and could even be performed by the children themselves.
On stage, Quince scolds Bottom once again. Bottom, who is playing Pyramus, is speaking not only his lines but the cues as well. The delectable Thisbe, played by Flute, with wig aflop and five o'clock shadow showing, meets the lion who by now is roaring with great style. But instead of being frightened, Thisbe turns on him and gives him a wallop with her apron, then saunters away, primping her curls. Alas, Pyramus thinks Thisbe has been eaten and so stabs himself in what must be the longest and silliest death by sword ever. He writhes, he moans, he rolls not only down the steps but up as well before finally collapsing in a great panting heap.
After the performance, what question do the children ask most often? "How we learn all those words." says Neville-Andrews. "We tell them it's just like any job; actors learn their parts like a car mechanic learns about an engine."
The language, he admits, is the biggest obstacle to enjoying Shakespeare. Only one other theater besides the Folger in the U.S. has Shakespeare in permanent repertory," so children get to know the plays first from books. We hope they will go on to read the entire plays after seeing these scenes. They may not be always easy to understand but we urge them to do like we do -- read the hard parts out loud several times and the meaning will often become clear."
Once the difficulty of the language is confronted -- and Playaround Shakespeare aims to acquaint children with the rhythm and sound so it won't seem so strange -- the plots are, after all, wonderful stories with characters wo worry, fight, love, and act foolish -- just like ordinary people.
SEEING SHAKESPEARE Performances begin Thursday, March 4, and continuethrough Sunday, March 28 at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater, Arts and Industry Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW. Showtimes: Thursday and Friday, 10 and 11:30; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 and 2; Wednesday, 10 and 11:30. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $2 for children under 12. For reservations, call 357-1500