For 36 years, the Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company, the oldest continuous high school Shakespeare troupe in the U.S., has been bringing Shakespeare to life, and will do so again this month when Mamaroneck High School students recite the word of the Bard for four consecutive nights.
Under the direction of Dee O'Brien, who conceived the company in 1974, this year's casts are presenting "Macbeth" and "The Taming of the Shrew" in a series of performances from March 4 – 7 in the Hommocks Middle School auditorium. There are two casts for each play.
"I think it's a great creative and intellectual challenge and there's something special about having to understand what all those wonderful images mean, to give voice to them and then add actions on top of that," said O'Brien, who retired last year from teaching 8th grade English, but continues to lead the plays. "I love watching the camaraderie that grows between them. It's a very diverse company with many different age levels and backgrounds and they form very deep friendships, and this I've seen over 36 years."
Junior David Thomson, who plays Bianca's suitor Gremio in one of "Shrew" casts, agrees that the friendships are a great part of doing the plays.
"Some of the best friends I have made in high school have been because of this," he said. "We all put a lot of work into it. Getting on stage and performing is such a rush. When you kill a scene and have all your lines memorized, it's amazing."
O'Brien chose to set "Macbeth" in modern times with popular music from artists such as Sinead O'Connor and AC/DC played in the background; and gave the setting circa 1950 for "Taming of the Shrew," where a Howdy Doody puppet, Pez candy and Elvis Presley music factor into the performance.
"It's kind of an amazing thing to watch as a parent, to watch a child learn Shakespeare's lines, because it's kind of like a foreign language, and as they learn they start to understand it," said Jenny Geer, one of the show's producers. "The program is so valuable for the kids. Many of them start in 9th grade with smaller parts, and stay through senior year, and become the mentors to the younger kids, and create a special social network for them to work as a team."
Senior Derek Ward has been involved in these Shakespeare productions for four years and is thrilled to be playing Petruchio's servant, Grumio the fool.
"I saw these plays during middle school and I liked them and looked forward to getting involved," he said. "This is fun and exciting to perform and teaches us a lot about Shakespeare."
Two girls in this year's performances—Dinah Cherkasky, who plays Kate in "Shrew" and Alyssa Slater, who plays Lady Macbeth—have been involved with the troupe since they were little girls, having played small roles when their older siblings were involved.
O'Brien has always had tremendous support from parents, teachers and students and insists that without all the help, she never could have accomplished so many years of great Shakespearean plays.
"I really could not do what I do without the volunteer producers and the parents who come in to help. It's really amazing," she said. "As for the students, I really admire their resiliency and they always rise to the challenge."
Dates and times for "Taming of the Shrew" are as follows: Friday, March 5th, 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 6th, 2 p.m., Sunday, March 7th, 7 p.m. For "Macbeth," Thursday, March 4th, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 6th, 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 7th, 1 p.m.