I recently had an opportunity to take my two younger children to a vibrant piece of theater aimed at introducing young kids to Shakespeare, Shakespearean Rhapsody at Vancouver's Carousel Theatre for Young People. I was delighted to see the piece advertised as appropriate for younger children, ages 4 and up, because (for fairly obvious reasons) most Shakespeare experiences for younger audiences tend to be aimed at older kids and teens. But my 8 year old, especially, is quite taken with Shakespeare, and in fact has been going around zestfully biting his thumb at his brothers ever since we watched the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet together. My 4 year old, too, has paid rapt attention to whatever filmed Shakespeare I have been watching, and definitely picks up on key plot points and has a strong feel for character. (Spoiler: he likes bad guys.)
The piece, adapted in part from Lois Burdett's "Shakespeare Can Be Fun" series, is performed by four actors in colorful, Elizabethan-inflected costumes (breeches, overskirts, etc.) on a storybook-like set. In one hour, they perform highly abridged, but faithful, versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest (plus an introduction) with simple additions of hats, capes, swords, and the like to indicate the many characters each actor plays. The dialogue, in rhymed couplets, provides exposition of the complicated plots while also incorporating many key phrases from Shakespeare's writing. Jokes, action, swordfights, romance, and snippets of songs abound.
I had two primary concerns going in: first, would the kids be able to follow what was happening given the whirlwind of information and the potential confusion of a small cast playing numerous roles? And second, was it going to be unbearably twee and ren-faire perky?
I was very happy with respect to both questions. The kids seemed to follow along quite comfortably, and were particularly interested to see how many parts one actor could play. My little one has excellent recall of the plays now, several weeks later. To the production's credit, the role of Miranda is played, beautifully, by a male member of the cast, which demonstrated freedom, creativity, practicality, and a nice history lesson, all without having to say a word about it.
As for the twee factor, director Carole Higgins walked a very difficult line without a misstep. The cast (which includes at least one graduate of Carousel's own teen Shakespeare program) is upbeat and engaging, but their voices are rich, not squeaky-cute, and their smiles feel sincere, not pasted on. The comedy is contemporary and relevant without resorting to excessive corniness or crudeness (I like a fart joke as much as the next mother of three boys, but I'm not a fan of the movie trend of adding endless bathroom humor to classics to make them "appeal" to a mixed audience). Perhaps most importantly, the production presents all the richness of emotion in the plays -- love, loss, death, rage, fear -- straight on and appropriately contextualized. The children took it all in stride and got to experience for themselves what being moved by Shakespeare really feels like. This is, I think, the core of what it means to make a piece of children's theater that is neither condescending to its audience nor unfaithful to its source material.
I left the theater with my head bubbling with thoughts about what I would do if given an opportunity to make a Shakespeare production for younger children. This "storybook" version of three plays was one highly effective way to go about it, but I started to ponder others. A one-hour abridged version of one play would permit a deeper dive into a story with a little more space for calm and slower moments (my classmate last year in "The Art of Teaching Shakespeare" made a terrific stab at a shortened Tempest for her elementary students, working alongside their studies of Renaissance explorers and North America). Or, in a completely different direction, an hour of scenes and characters from a variety of plays exploring a particular theme (daughters and sons? fairies and ghosts?) could be interesting. Is there a way to focus on the rhythm and imagery of Shakespeare's verse rather than plot?
I always think it's a mark of a good theatrical experience to leave wanting to take the ideas and run with them. I saw that the kids felt exactly the same way, as they performed competing versions of Romeo's death scene all the way home.