Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TOP STORY >> Fifth graders perform Shakespeare

Leader staff writer

To be or not to be…outstanding.

That was the challenge posed to a group of fifth graders from Warren Dupree Elementary who participated in the Shakespeare Scene Festival at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on Thursday.

Their response was outstanding, according to the director of the two-day event, Kim McAbee.

“The goal of the Shakespeare Scene Festival is to demystify the study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare often intimidates people, and theater can all too often seem stuffy or unapproachable. We want to make performance fun for all audiences in the hopes that the event inspires a love of both Shakespearean literature and the theater,” the professor explained.

The Warren Dupree youngsters spent more than a month reading “Julius Caesar” and another month developing and practicing their own version – “The Politically Incorrect Julius Caesar.”

Among the changes to Shakespeare’s version, the conspirators, including Brutus, were women. Darth Vader made an appearance, as did political candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

McAbee said, “The fifth-grade performers are always a highlight of the festival. In addition to being a fantastically engaging and funny performance on its own, these young students managed to serve as models for the middle and high school students at the festival, setting a high bar for all in attendance.”

Michaelle Malvin, 11, who played Brutus, said, “It was fun. I was a little nervous at first when we got on that big stage at the university, but I got used to it.” She said she loved playing Brutus but wouldn’t want be him in real life because “bad karma caught up with him.”

Grainger Pearson, 11, loved his role as Caesar. “I was the star,” he quipped. He said he was nervous when the class first arrived at the theater. “But then I got nervous and then not so.”

Pearson said, when he and his classmates first started reading “Julius Caesar,” he was not really interested in it. “But I got hooked quickly and wanted to read the whole thing.”

Tristyn Armstrong, 10, had multiple parts, including the street cobbler, Brutus’ house-husband Porter and Darth Vader. He enjoyed his roles, saying, “I got to be angry, to show different emotions. It was very exciting.”

Armstrong said he came to understand the relationship between Brutus and Portia in the real Shakespeare.

“I get it now. Portia wasn’t good under pressure. If she was she might have been able to stop Brutus,” he noted.

Andrew Bauer, 10, also had a number of roles — from playing the prince from “Romeo and Juliet” to Decius, who was in the gang that attacks Caesar, and the soothsayer who tries to warn Caesar.

The fifth graders decided to open the play with a scene from “Romeo and Juliet” where the Montagues and Capulets are fighting and the prince has to give them a warning. “Instead of Capulets and Montagues, we had Trump and Hillary supporters,” explained Bauer, who admitted the group forgot a line or two “but the audience gave us an A.”

Rachel Crow, 10, played one of two students who were “color commentators” during the play.

She dressed in a Thing One outfit saluting Dr. Seuss and Read Across America Week. In reading the play, Crow thought, “This will be exciting but also a little hard and Brutus seems to have a lot of parts.”

She really liked the garden scene in the fifth-grade version where Brutus is talking aloud, deciding whether or not to help kill Caesar. “We had Darth Vader come in and bring Brutus to the dark side. It was cool,” Crow said.

Ciara Greene, who played Thing Two and was the other commentator, said it best with one of her lines from the play and about the play, “It’s all about warnings. You know, where things, especially bad things, happen in threes. There’s murder, blood and guts.”

The fifth graders were the third group to perform Thursday, following Horace Mann Middle School and the Episcopal Collegiate School.

Like Warren Dupree, Horace Mann developed their own play using select lines from nearly all the Shakespeare plays.

“But they had scripts,” said Pearson, “We knew all of our lines without scripts or cue cards.”

The Episcopal group stayed true to the Shakespeare form, performing selected portions of Act 1 of “Much Ado about Nothing.”

“It was good to watch them before we performed,” said Crow. “We picked up some tips of what to do and not to do from watching them.”

All the young actors agreed that speaking loudly and clearly were the key to their outstanding performance.

McAbee said the Warren Dupree troupe “wonderfully tied together the themes of Julius Caesar with the current presidential election, making Shakespeare’s Roman play especially timely. Most impressive of all, the class was beautifully prepared: they had mastered their lines, projected their voices and made excellent use of the stage space.”

Professor Roslyn L. Knutson of UALR’s English department, started the Shakespeare Scene Festival in imitation of a program at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The festival got fully underway on the UALR campus in 1998 with classes from three high schools, one junior high and one elementary school.