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Shakespeare as you like it

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But, soft! What light through yonder theater breaks? It is the Shakespeare Festival, and all the diocesan students are the stars of the show.


Dozens of Catholic middle schoolers gathered at Paul VI Catholic School in Fairfax May 21-24 to perform condensed versions of William Shakespeare's dramas. In between shows, the students learned more about the Bard of Avon, discussed the implications of metrical line and hurled Shakespearean insults at one another.


The performance of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” by St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax was enhanced by the greenery of the set and delicate costuming. The school’s pit band opened the play with a rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” Chimes rung for the mystical fairies, trombones woke the star-crossed lovers, and gunshots humorously accented the fisticuffs.


St. Leo teacher Sami Slobado has been part of the festival for 16 years. “What I love is how the children grow. They start having never seen Shakespeare before, having never read Shakespeare,” she said. “We read the play, they’re given the parts, and the people who you would never suspect have it in them always shine through. On Monday (I think) this is never going to come together and then by Tuesday they (are) just awesome and prepared and so poised.”


Eighth-grader Gabrielle Nguyen expected to get a small part, but she was cast as Hermia, an Athenian who runs into the forest with her love, Lysander, to escape an unwanted marriage. The role had a lot of lines, but Nguyen said she enjoyed stepping into the character.


“When you come to school, you're this one person, but when you get a chance to be in a really awesome play, you get to be a totally different person,” she said, while still wearing a golden leaf crown and flowing white dress. “I think that’s cool because you can get out of your comfort zone and experience something new.”


Changing the tone of the festival, students from Epiphany Catholic School in Culpeper performed “Much Ado about Nothing” as if they were characters from “Grease,” complete with Pink Lady jackets and lots of leather. 


“Three years ago, they did ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ and it was ‘Star Wars’ themed. Two years ago, it was ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ but it was DC Marvel,” explained Michael Nunberg, who played Benedict, known as Kenickie in this production.


“(This year,) we were trying to decide what we could do that’s pretty simple to merge the characters and correlate with the plot,” said Meagan Fay, who portrayed Beatrice/Rizzo. Fay’s favorite part of rehearsing was a bit of improvisation.


“I get to hit (Kenickie) in the end, when he was supposed to kiss me,” she said. “I came up with the idea, instead of an awkward side hug, why don’t we put a little comedy in it and I hit him with the piece of paper.” Nunberg’s favorite part was getting to sport a leather jacket every day.


It was English teacher Elizabeth Graffon’s first year directing the play at Epiphany, but she was excited to dive in. “I like how it got the kids into Shakespeare, so much more than just reading it in class would,” she said. “I’m sure they’re not going to remember the specifics of the play but they'll remember how it felt to perform it and that it was funny. It wasn’t just stiff and formal — what we think of as Shakespearean language.”


St. Rita School in Alexandria closed out the morning of the festival’s’ final day with a rendition of “Hamlet,” letting loose famous lines such as “Get thee to a nunnery!” The show ended with the entire cast reciting lines of Hamlet’s infamous soliloquy, “To be or not to be? That is the question.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018