Martha’s Vineyard Charter Schoolers do Shakespeare

Heather Capece as Hippolyta and Bob Moore as Duke Theseus. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Shakespeare can be daunting, even for adults. But Treather Gassmann, who directed last weekend’s play starring students of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, likes a challenge.

Last year she chose to take on the classic French absurdist play “Ubu Roi.” This year, Ms. Gassmann reached further back into theater history and selected Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for a group of young actors who ranged from kindergarteners to eighth-graders.

And, despite some initial apprehension on the part of the students, the young thespians handled the work — written half a millennium ago with famously difficult language even for adults — remarkably well. On Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, audiences on hand for three performances of the comedy at the Grange Hall got a taste of Shakespeare at his imaginative best, presented by a troupe of talented young actors.

“When I learned we were doing Shakespeare I was freaking out,” said Susa Breese, who took on one of the principal roles. “I didn’t even know what ‘thy’ meant.” However, she was soon won over by the material. “I hadn’t really gone into depth with anything Shakespeare,” she said. “After doing this one it seems pretty cool. I thought it was going to be one of those dramatic ‘I’m going to kill myself’ sort of plays.”

Hardly. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” incorporates three story lines, which range from fairly serious with a fanciful twist, to completely fanciful with a very silly twist, to an outright silly, slapstick story line centering on a troupe of bumbling actors. The nature of the material, which includes a healthy helping of fairies and fantasy, proved a perfect match for the group of energetic kids.

At the heart of the play are two sets of young lovers who require some magical intervention to sort out a tangle of misplaced affections. Eighth-grader Kyra Whalen played one of the male lovers as a mustachioed and preppy Edgartown type. This was not her first experience with Shakespeare. Kyra appeared in three of the Bard’s tragedies with IMP Theater Camp.

“I love Shakespeare,” said Kyra, who found the Bard’s poetic dialogue helpful in memorizing her lines. “Sometimes it’s easier to learn because a lot of it rhymes and goes together.”

All four of the actors portraying the lovers (Kyra, Sarah Chickering, Morgan Taylor, and Oscar Thompson) really sunk their teeth into their roles and delivered surprisingly mature performances.

As the protagonists of an auxiliary story, Ruby Dix and Ethan Hall were convincing (and colorfully clad) as the feuding Fairy King and Queen. Other members of the mystical world included Titania’s fairy handmaidens played with appropriately ethereal charm by Leah Isabelle Littlefield, Autumn Richards, and Rhiannon Shahn (who also had a role in the play scenes) and the mischievous Puck, played to sassy, playful perfection by Sequoia Ahren.

The crazy cast of characters that makes up the play-within-a-play (Susa, Jared Rivard, Mackenzie Luce, Noah Buehler) got the biggest laughs, with Susa’s skilled scenery-chewing stealing the show. As the hammish actor, Nick Bottom, Susa proved herself a natural clown, something which no doubt came as no surprise to her family.

“When I was younger I would do crazy things to make people laugh to the point of annoyance,” said Susa. “My brother and my dad told me I could only do the same thing three times. We did three shows. That was perfect. I like making people laugh, and I’m used to making them laugh three times.”

Despite the buffoonery, like any pro, Susa did her homework. She rented a film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and skimmed the play before rehearsals began.

“I’m going to be in all the plays that I can,” said Susa, a seventh-grader who played the comic lead in “Ubu” last year. However, she said, “Serious acting is not my thing.”

The production also included some adult actors and a troupe of little fairies (kindergarteners Lucia Anna Capece, Ada Chronister, Madeleine Clatworthy, and Grace Robinson, along with Francesca Robinson and Sarah Taylor), who performed a crowd-pleasing dance at the end. Zachary Smalley played the guitar. Lucy Thompson handled lights and tech.

Eleventh-grader Ian Chickering, who has transitioned from acting to writing and directing as his primary focus, served as the stage manager and assistant director for the second year in a row. “When Treather told me it was Shakespeare, I said, ‘Are you sure they are going to understand it?'” he said. “At first they saw it as a challenge, but as we got closer and closer to the production they got it perfectly.”

Although Ms. Gassmann, Ian, and second assistant Jane Loutzenhiser were committed to walking the kids through the flowery language, the actors apparently had little difficulty with it.

“We would stop and say ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’ and they would explain and even elaborate on it,” Ian said. “I was completely impressed with everyone, and I was so proud of these kids that they took the risk.”

Ms. Gassmann was gratified that the risk paid off so well. She is considering doing a Shakespeare comedy every other year, based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s” success. Her goal was to have the kids gain a further appreciation of the power of language. After the final performance she said, “The words are so important and I wanted the focus to be on that and the relationships rather than props and a storyline.”

At least one of the young actors was sold by the experience. Said Kyra after the final performance, “I definitely want to do more Shakespeare.”