Three shows. One outstanding group of talented youths. Three nights. Shakespeare at its finest among the performing high school actors in the area. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presented in all its resplendent glory three riveting productions of the Bard’s finest work— all done in 90 minutes or less and each done with a sensational group of self-directed youth performers. After having spent an eight weekend intensive with Core Program educators James Jager, Katie Keddell, and Lizzie Albert, learning a range of skills from mime to sword fighting and everything in-between; the students performed their productions for the masses and were met with amazing applause for their brilliant successes. Students picked their roles from a hat, ensuring a challenge for everyone involved, and they rose to that challenge to perform some of the area’s best Shakespearean comedies and tragedies this side of summer.
Taking a brief journey to the tropics, the students of the Twelfth Night production set the focus of their performance on the physical comedy. The brief sword-fighting scenes that occurred between Viola in guise and Sir Andrew Aguecheek were carried out with oversized floral-print paper umbrellas. With the students in charge of blocking the show we ended up with incredible choices that are often overlooked in standard productions.
Feste (Austin Spafford) reminded mostly out of sight, but ever present, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘the silent fool.’ Spafford’s unique characterization made for good laughs when he encountered Olivia (Katie Huber). Huber and Spafford created picturesque moments with their distinctive blocking. Huber plays the character to the letter as she’s written, bitter and aloof, but quickly does a whirling dervish to become a lovestruck fool when it comes to her Cesario, which is really just Viola in guise.
Playing the irreverent servant role are Maria (Miranda Kelley). With perfected speech and a keen tongue with which to deliver her quips, she gets on quite well with Sir Toby (Noah Allen). Kelley and Allen, joined by the boisterously obnoxious Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Phoebe Heiligman) and the foolish Fabian (Kathryn Monthie) dither about in the audience while laying a plot to Malvolio. This scene is great cause for comic gold and their audience interactions are a signature mark of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s approach to making the Bard’s work widely accessible to the masses. Heiligman in particular really delves into the character and makes it her own, branding her brawn about as if it were as mighty as the sword she’s afraid to clang, truly mastering the movement of her body in the process.
Malvolio (Melanie Vitullo) is well practiced with Shakespearean delivery and the scenes where she takes to reading over Olivia’s letter is priceless as the audience witnesses the transformation from rigid and reserved to blithering fool swept up by love. Of course Vitullo’s character isn’t the only one swept away by love, Viola (Casey Rander) is desperately pining for her ‘master’ Orsino (Thomas Bilbrey). Rander emotes with enthusiasm and passion. Bilbrey catches a dancing bug a bit early on, once again showcasing the fact that bodies enhance humor tenfold. Let’s not forget Sebastian (Bobby Henneberg) who takes a casual approach to suddenly finding himself doted upon by Olivia, and his ease in this role results in quite a few laughs. Love is of course swooning subtly with Antonio (Rachel Walter) gushing over Sebastian.
Keep an eye on Katie Nesbit. Playing a plethora of stand-in characters she owns her role as the officer, forever in possession of and then eating donuts! Some of the most hilarious moments happen during Nesbit’s brief arrivals, she’s one girl you don’t want to miss. The play says some achieve greatness, and clearly the Bard was referencing this group of talented youth performers.
The Scottish Tragedy takes on a very modern look with polished pressed suits and current day army camouflage. The introduction moment is a smashing success if harrowing to watch; swords— actual ones this time around— clanging and slashing hither and thither and then in slow motion. The placement of this production is what separates it apart from other renditions; fully utilizing the audience and making them guests to Macbeth’s madness and untimely downfall.
The Witches (Allison Peters, Sophia Scanlon, Kaitlyn Thomas-Franz) make excellent use of their full physicality; loping away from every scene and remaining appropriately hunched to give their appearance a spookily grizzled effect. This trio of talent make the “double double toil and trouble” scene particularly haunting when they chant in unison; and when they slink about in the audience you almost feel a cold chill rush by you. But you feel the chill full force when Hecate (Benairen Tomhave) takes to the stage. Looking like some hybrid amalgamation from a Steampunk version of The Matrix, Tomhave delivers a targeted fury and focused frustration in his speech; an eerie and spine-tingling moment if ever there was one.
Lady Macbeth (Alyssa Walter) is quite dynamic, first appearing blasé and almost aristocratically detached, and then quickly becoming impassioned for her “unsex me” monologue. Walter carries a cocky arrogance about herself, mostly in her upper torso, which is a perfect fit for the soon to be reigning queen. Running with the rogue attitude set forth by the lady of the house are the Three Murderers (Donald Doyle, Fritz McGlynn, and McKenna Thomas-Franz). They stand stalwart with unyielding devotion to Macbeth’s commands; and are vocally gruff and physically intimidating when they set upon Banquo (Catherine Paxton) and Fleance (Sarah Huber).
MacDuff (Paige Bowmaster) has the most expressive facial features in the performance, particularly when receiving news of the siege that has been set upon her castle. Turning that nauseating sorrow into pure rage she funnels it directly at Macbeth in an unrelenting fury of words and sword-clanging action.
Macbeth (Will Fletcher-Hill) is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Fletcher-Hill takes a completely new approach to the character; showing early on his fiercely tyrannical nature without a drop of madness to dilute the pure unadulterated rage that boils inside of him. His speech is flecked with fury which radiates down his neck and into his body fully every time he speaks. When he takes to the audience, slamming a chair to us and addressing us as if we are his personal council there is a raw exposure of his internal existence that really brings the audience into his story. Fletcher-Hill is an exemplary performer; mastering the ups and downs of the dynamic character, particularly when the madness does finally seep in toward the end of the show. A stunning sensation.
Come what may this talented cast— every person doing their part to make it a success— has truly given depth and feeling to the bloody Scottish Tragedy.
Comedy of Errors
Taking a Jersey Shore approach with a very modern free-style feel to it, this production has a little unexpected zing and a whole lot of bling happening as it unfolds. With pop-urban outfits and all the accessories to boot, this show plays up the physical comedy with foam noodles used for constantly beating the poor pair of Dromios. This production explores a great deal of physical movement, especially as the cast chases each other all over the stage and throughout the audience. With hints of Commedia in play here, this comedy is a splendid time for all, especially the students on the stage.
Luciana (Ashi Agrawal) and her sister Adriana (Karis Walsh) are the epitome of classy Jersey Shore girls, if such a thing can be said without sounding too oxymoronic. Agrawal and Walsh both slather on the thick accent of that region, and make for some comic good moments, especially when they play up the bonds of their sisterhood like BFF’s. They are clearly poking fun at the trashy-Kardashian lifestyle and in doing so earn themselves a bunch of authentic laughs.
Solinus (Zaira Girala) is an enthusiastic character. Appearing at the beginning with quite the squeaky shrill voice that makes her presence truly over the top in the best way possible. Not reappearing until near the end of the show, Girala her presence is clearly marked by her ability to time her comic vocalizations with physical gestures.
The heavy comedy falls on the Antipholuses— Antipholi? The pair of Antipholi— Syracuse (Bryan Gutierrez) and Ephesus (Paul Ocone.) And the Dromios— Syracuse (Brynli Cortes) and Ephesus (Danni Vitullo). Together these four performers get screwed-up six ways to Sunday in cases of mistaken identities that result in sheer shenanigans and a jolly good time for everyone watching. Cortes and Vitullo take their beatings in stride, each finding a unique way to try and skirt them, dashing about in frantic moments across the stage. Cortes gets particularly expressive and comically emotive when bemoaning learning of the kitchen servant who loves her, describing her proportions with epic comic timing in her delivery.
Ocone and Gutierrez both manage a temper, Ocone really slapping his saucy tongue at the merchants (Tess Greene, Madison Tasker, and Sarah Tossman). Gutierrez really masters the physical attacks on the Dromios; using the noodle as an extension of his frustration rather than just a prop. It’s impressive to watch how similar their presences on stage are while noting the vast differences that makes each performance extremely unique.
The rap-free-style beat dropping that occurs throughout the production really makes its mark; showing that these talented youths can not only relate Shakespeare but they can take it to a higher plane of rhythmic meter. The finale is an impressive “we-are-family” style rap that gets the entirety of the cast to show what a great time they had!
Each performer in this show is truly worth their weight in gold. Or rope. Or ducats. (DUCATS!)
The Chesapeake Shakespeare’s High School Core Company ran three individual performances of each production at The Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park— 3655 Church Road, in Ellicott City, MD. For more information on the Core Program be sure to visit the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s website.