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Learning 'Twelfth Night' in four weeks

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2003

A colorful pile of scarves, seriously rumpled paperback copies of "Twelfth Night," and two rapiers and a dagger cover a table in McPhetres Hall downtown as a dozen youths sit in a circle on the floor.

It's the Bare Bones Shakespeare Ensemble, kids age 9 to 17 who are assembling for four weeks to put on Shakespeare's comedy about identity that's mistaken and love that's unrequited - until the final scene.

It's Wednesday's four-hour afternoon rehearsal at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church's hall, and they have about a week before the performances, director Nancy Buttenheim reminds them as one girl sharply draws in her breath.

Bare bones means the scarves will be taped to the wall as scenery, the hall's floor may be the stage, a couple of stools are the sets, and the actors have to color in by hand the red hearts on the promotional fliers.

Performances

The Bare Bones Shakespeare Ensemble will perform "Twelfth Night" at McPhetres Hall at Fourth and Gold streets.

A free preview is at 7 p.m. July 24. Other shows, for a $5 admission fee, are at 7 p.m. July 25 and 26, and 5 p.m. July 27.

Audience members under 13 are asked to bring a pillow so they can sit on the floor in front of the seated audience.

Proceeds will go to Hospice and Home Care of Juneau support services for grieving children.

But it isn't bare bones in its effort or appeal to the imagination. Buttenheim puts the actors through rapid tongue-twister exercises to warm them up for enunciating their lines. They'll run through nearly all of the 1 1/2-hour play in the rehearsal as Buttenheim prods them to speak up and be clear, listen to each other, and remember the "blocking" instructions she's given them on where and how to move.

"Let's imagine now the lights are going out," Buttenheim told the cast as they began. "Go in quiet footfall - don't run, do a silent walk - be way still in your face."

The play began to the music of Bach with four pairs of actors holding blue or white cloths. They thrust up their arms and let the billowing fabric, representing waves, slowly sink. Waves enveloped and pulled apart the actors playing twin brother and sister Sebastian and Viola, who are separated in a shipwreck.

They wash ashore in Illyria, in southern Europe. Viola will pretend to be a man, for safety sake, but fall in love with a man who is in love with a woman who becomes attracted to Viola in her man's role. It ends up being handy that Viola has a twin brother.

This is Buttenheim's fourth time directing Juneau youths in Shakespeare, including once in the early 1980s and two times in recent years. She's an actor, director, and instructor in yoga and dance in Lenox, Mass.

"Shakespeare is such a great way to learn about being human," she said. "He's got so much to teach us. And I know, because they're getting it at such a young age, they're going to remember it."

Buttenheim's friend Jamie McLean, who has two children in this year's play, introduced her to Juneau and is an enthusiastic supporter.

The children "learn how to work in an ensemble, where they support each other to create something greater than their individual selves," McLean said. "They also learn the love of language and bringing that alive."

Her children, Tess Cannon, nearly 15, and McLean Cannon, 10, quote lines at the dinner table and talk about the play's universal themes.

"Normally, we don't talk about unrequited love or what that is about," she said.

Taimhyr Reece, 17, loves Shakespeare enough that she once shaved her head to appear as the prince of Morocco in "The Merchant of Venice."

"The language is just so beautiful," she said during a break. "It's such a different way of communicating and speaking and even of moving than any other theater."

"I love the language," agreed Tess Cannon, who plays Viola. "I love Shakespeare. (Buttenheim) is an awesome director. And I love Viola. Viola is my dream part. ... I love her passion and her exuberance and her innocence and her kindness."

Jon Choate, 16, of Juneau who recently graduated from high school in Hawaii and will attend Harvard, plays another lead role, that of Orsino.

"What distinguishes Shakespeare is the language is so difficult," he said. "It's very thick. It can be very difficult to say at times. You spend a lot of time working on your diction."

Robin Woodby, 11, who plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek, said he has to work on the lines a lot.

"After you've memorized them, you still have to work. Then you have to do a lot more - the blocking and stuff on stage and just getting into your character."

During the rehearsal, Buttenheim, in jeans and a T-shirt, a hand sometimes searching through her hair as if for ideas, stood at what would be the rear of the audience and kept up a stream of instructions. She still had time to laugh a lot.

When Maggie Ross, 10, playing the over-the-top, sometimes drunk Sir Toby Belch, gave the line "What a plague," Buttenheim told her: "Oh, now big. This is Sir Toby. You've got to top Tess."

As Maggie-Sir Toby ran through the lines, Buttenheim added: "Could you stretch your arm out, Toby, when you come in? And stick your belly out."

Later the director sympathized with Maggie playing the drunken role: "It's not easy to burp on cue."

"Yeah, it is," Maggie said and proved it.

"Say that again. I want to hear the flirtation," Buttenheim urged Reece, playing Olivia, who falls in love with Viola when she was pretending to be a man. "Your whole being has to start changing now. You have been caught by the flames."

At the end of the rehearsal, the cast again gathered in a circle on the floor. Buttenheim praised them and reminded them of what needs to be worked on.

"I want you to be dreaming these lines," she said. "I want you to be dreaming those entrances. Each day you have one more opportunity to really live in this world of Illyria and listen to each other and talk. But you can only do that when this script is in your bloodstream."

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