Mama Madison: The play's the thing

Shakespeare with kids, for kids

I am not normally one to tempt fate. And lightning rarely strikes twice. But after a surprisingly successful all-family brush with the Bard at APT last summer, I signed my 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter up for Shakespeare camp this year. We weren't quite ready for the Young Shakespeare Players yet. The idea of full-length and uncut scared the bejesus out of me. Not so much because I didn't think the kids could hack it--I have heard amazing things about the program--but because I was dreading spending the better part of my summer running two sets of lines in incomprehensible (at least to me) Elizabethan English. I'm still paying the price for being the only English major known to man who managed to avoid a class on Shakespeare in college.

Fortunately we landed a spot in Richard Hamel's Shorewood Summer program---a kind of Royal Shakespeare Company for Rugrats. A veteran Madison Metropolitan School District elementary teacher, Hamel runs a three-week, two-hour-a-day camp each summer that culminates in the performance of a highly abridged work, using all original language.

And this year they were doing Macbeth.

Was he kidding me? How about getting their feet wet with a little A Midsummer Night's Dream? Or Romeo and Juliet? My kids have at least seen West Side Story. And they know enough about the Twilight vampires to wrap their heads around the concept of forbidden love.

But Macbeth? Weren't they a bit young to be tackling themes of unbridled ambition and regicide? Wouldn’t they rather be memorizing Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" than Lady Macbeth's "Out, damn'd spot! Out, I say!"

But my kids came home singing the praises of the program each and every afternoon. They learned the fine art of creative costuming and stage combat. They attempted Scottish accents that sounded suspiciously like Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. And it's not every day that you get to discover that a cantaloupe splashed with red paint makes for a perfect "Macbeth's head on a stick" in the final scene.

But their daily joys could have never prepared me for the sheer pleasure of watching the final performances.

Trust me, Shakespearean tragedy in the hands of 4th through 7th graders can be far better characterized as The Comedy of Errors.

Every third cue was missed. A few of Lady Macbeth's lines were clearly improvised and may have been borrowed from an episode of Hannah Montana. The youthful Weird Sisters, sporting "pretty " vs. "scary" witch Halloween costumes, seemed far more Glinda than Wicked Witch of the West. It would not have been shocking if they had set the "Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble" lines to the tune of Popular.

And catastrophe, you will be glad to know, was narrowly averted during the cauldron scene. A word of advice, kids. Dry ice is nothing to be fooled around with.

Camp is now sadly over and both my kids are suffering from "post dramatic stress disorder""the after-cast-party letdown. And my son is afflicted quite badly. I'm not sure any of his other summer activities can top the high of playing the title role in one of the greatest works of English literature. Like Sir Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles before him, he got to proclaim to a (somewhat) rapt audience, "It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Except that it signified everything. He now wants to become an actor. Do you think they have sleep-away camps in Stratford-upon-Avon?

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