Get Thee To Rowayton

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The fireflies are out in Connecticut. They appear each summer just as the Tiger Lilies bloom and the Hydrangeas pop. Amidst these annual seasonal highlights, Shakespeare on the Sound presents a play on the banks of the Five Mile River in Rowayton, the quintessential New England coastal town. This year, arguably the most celebrated of all Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet.

You’re probably familiar with the basic premise of this play: the ghost of Hamlet’s father visits Elsinore Castle in Denmark to encourage Hamlet to enact revenge on Claudius, the murderous uncle who swiftly married Gertrude, the queen. While Hamlet struggles over whether or not he is morally able to perpetuate the violence necessary for retribution, he also struggles with his love for Ophelia and his trust of his closest friends and advisors. Along with the perpetually quoted “To be or not to be” speech, the play also boasts a plethora of Shakespeare’s astute insights on human nature and how to live:

“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice”

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain”

“Our wills and fates do so contrary run.” [Read more…]

Two Gentle-kids on the River

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Probably the biggest highlight of summer for me: free outdoor Shakespeare. As I’ve been in the thick of raising kids for the past six summers, I haven’t seen much lately. For the past five years or so, this was okay as I spend much of my twenties seeing everything – some plays even twice or three times. But, I’d never seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona, believed to have been Shakespeare’s first.  So as the end of Shakespeare on the Sound‘s annual two week run rapidly approached, I started to get that pit in my stomach: I guess it’s not going to happen this year. Oh well, soon they’ll be older and life will be a little easier. Maybe eventually they’ll be another lane added on I-95 so it won’t be such a pain to travel that awful stretch between my town and Rowayton. But, lo and behold! I found a solution this year: Shakespeare on the Sound offers kids activities AND an abridged production for kids EVERY night before its 7:30 show. The weather was perfect tonight so we headed down.

Let’s back up. Yes, I did spend a summer studying Shakespeare in Cambridge, England, and do consider myself widely read on his behalf, but let’s be honest: I haven’t read much Shakespeare lately. Though I’d intended to reread the play before seeing it, I had to accept this wouldn’t happen. And this became one of those moments that I so cherish my beautiful bookshelves filled with REAL books. I scanned my Shakespeare section and found Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 classic Tales From Shakespeare. Though I’d flipped though this book in the past (pre-kid era), I’d really never valued it until now. Yes, it’s geared towards young children, but it’s also perfect for a harried parent cramming before a production. Each play (well I should say most of the comedies and some of the tragedies) are very cleverly and eloquently retold in prose. The Lambs worked hard to preserve the essence of Shakespeare’s language. In fact, they stress in the Preface that these retellings are indeed meant to be primers for the real thing one day, and to teach these children in their older years the importance of: “virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity…”

Anyway, back to the present day and our little abridged version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona: it was a home-run for a few reason: I’ve always believed Shakespeare is performed best with a limited setting. What’s important is: the subject, the language, and of course: the players. Our little production was performed in front of two sheets draped over a rope tied between two trees. Yup, that was it for the set. The players? Six – young women, let’s call them. They looking to be about college age, but possibly high school? They were called interns and they created their version all by themselves. During Shakespeare’s time (as we know from “Shakespeare in Love”) all roles were performed by men. Today all female casts are prevalent. I don’t know what kind of training these young women have had, but they killed it. Each played multiple roles seamlessly. Perhaps it’s because we caught the production towards the end of their two week run, but they didn’t falter. Again, I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare and this truly impressed me.

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But this isn’t about me right? It’s about the kids, and here are my thoughts: It would be an understatement to say that this was a highlight of my parenting years. I had no idea how this would go, but because the players were so talented and positive, my kids (ages three and six) were both enthralled for the entire 30 minutes. I forgot to mention that earlier – thirty minutes is really the perfect amount of time to hold the six and under set’s attention. After it was over, my daughter (the six-year-old) was beaming. Something had clicked.

“It was different,” she answered after I probed not so delicately during the drive home.

“How?”

“Well, you know how I’ve seen ‘Five Little Monkeys, ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Frog and Toad?’ This one was, like, not real.” (we can pause and think about the irony of this statement).

“Could you understand it?”

“Not really, but I still liked it.” (And then she recounted some funny joke from the play about a cucumber that had gone over my head).

And therein lies the essence of Shakespeare for me. You don’t have to understand all or even some of the words. You just have to be moved in some way, the way you feel moved by a poem you don’t understand or a song or a scene in a movie. Moral of this story: it’s never too soon to expose the little ones to some form of Shakespeare. Take advantage of any offerings in your local area in this summer. They’ll most likely be free to attend but completely enriching. Also, the best part – as we walked out of the park towards our car, we watched all of the “grown-ups” walking in with their heavy picnics, chairs, blankets and bug-spray. I’ve had my fair share of all that and sure, they may enjoy watching the two-plus hour “real” play, but we were all tucked in by 9:00 and I didn’t even have to pay for a sitter!