On the stage of Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School on Tuesday, Isabella Violante Fletcher, Jayliz Freeney, Nehima Bell, and Chidimma Nzekwe —better known as Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Moth in their costumes — were chanting about animals.
“Spotted snakes with double tongues, thorny hedgehogs be not seen. Newts and bloodworms do no wrong. Come not near our fairy queen.” They sang it to the tune of Brahms’s famous lullaby. In the middle of them was Zyana Campbell, or Titania, who sank slowly into slumber. One of the fairies stood guard, until Martin Duff as Oberon shooed her away.
He knelt down and cast his own spell to work some of the mischief that fuels A Midsummer NIght’s Dream — the eighth annual Shakespeare production at Mauro-Sheridan, put together by a deep collaboration among Jodi Schneider of Mauro-Sheridan, the education program at Elm Shakespeare Company, Hopkins School, and most important, a cadre of game, hardworking, and talented fifth- to eighth-graders at Mauro-Sheridan.
The play will be performed on June 5 at 6 p.m. at Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School on Fountain Street in Westville.
Schneider, a literacy tutor at Mauro-Sheridan, got the idea of doing a Shakespeare play at the school after using his plays and stories with her students and seeing their attraction to them. The first play the students put on, eight years ago, was The Tempest. “It was a really small, bare-bones production with a small cast,” she said. “But it’s grown every year since.”
Shakespearean actor Jeremy Funke got involved the next year and agreed to direct. “We did some heavy, serious plays that we adapted to be fun and silly,” Schneider said. They did Henry IV. They did Macbeth. Then Funke joined Elm Shakespeare’s education program, and a collaboration was born.
“Rebecca” — as in Kemper Goodheart, now Elm Shakespeare’s producing artistic director — “felt strongly that they should be using full original text,” Schneider said. As in, they could cut out parts of the plays they chose to perform, but every word uttered should be Shakespeare’s language. The students “rose to the occasion and did a phenomenal job.” Last year’s production of Much Ado About Nothing featured 24 students and involved a dance choreographer from Southern Connecticut State University as well.
In addition, Schneider said, “we used to make all our own costumes. As of last year, we’re using Elm Shakespeare’s treasure trove of costumes.”
At the rehearsal Tuesday, those costumes arrived at Mauro-Sheridan courtesy of Goodheart and Sarah Bowles, Elm Shakespeare’s education program director.
“We have to take super-good care of them,” Goodheart told the students. There would be no eating in costume. No drinking except water. And the costumes were never to go on the ground — except in the context of the play. “We’re going to have to practice crawling in dresses,” Goodheart said.
“Fairies, you know you need to be barefoot,” Bowles said.
“Me too?” said one of the actors.
“Yes, you too,” Bowles said.
Goodheart got to work fitting the actors with costumes.
Bowles and education intern Jason Hall worked with the actors. “I want to hear full voices!” Bowles said. “I want you to really act today!”
The students delivered. After a kinetic opening battle involving the full cast, Campbell and Duff got Titania’s and Oberon’s wary dance. Luciana Compoverde’s Hermia bristled with energy. The so-called mechanicals — Charles Jefferey as Peter Quince, Zanaya Harrison as Snug, the Joiner, Adrian Guzman as Snout, the Tinker, Adriana Williams as Starveling, The Tailor, and Mahari Kerrison as Francis Flute, The Bellows Mender — tightened up their timing to convey the comedy of amateur actors putting on a play.
Jaemese Edwards captured Puck’s cunning, intelligence, and humor.
And James Jefferey commanded the role of irrepressible scenery chewer Nick Bottom.
With an eight-year track record, Schneider has students she first introduced to Shakespeare as second-graders who are now acting on stage. “A lot of these kids have grown up to be in a production,” she said. In addition to Elm Shakespeare’s deep involvement, she credits the support of Mauro-Sheridan’s principal, Sandy Kaliszewski, and Mike Calderon, a teacher at Hopkins School who oversees the production of Mauro-Sheridan’s sets. Calderon “helps to create the vision of what the sets will look like,” Schneider said. Hopkins students in the school’s theater and arts program fulfill a school service requirement to build the sets.
But it really comes down to the Mauro-Sheridan students themselves, who put in the hours to memorize lines and then bring Shakespeare’s language to life. “It’s always interesting to watch the arc,” Schneider said. “We have ELL [English language learner] kids in our group. All different levels of readers.” They do text and character analysis. They work on language skills and public speaking. Schneider has seen students who were so quiet in school that they barely spoke develop to have leading parts in plays. Doing the play, she said, “works on building a lot of skills — lifelong skills, really.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School, 191 Fountain St., at 6 p.m.