Celebrating Shakespeare's 450th birthday is no tragedy

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Let's say you were going to see William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" for the first time, and you didn't know the plot and were afraid you'd never make sense of all that Elizabethan language.

That's where Alan Irvine steps in.

Mr. Irvine, a professional storyteller, was one of the featured performers at Saturday's 450th Birthday Bash for the Bard, put on by Hope Academy of Music and Art in East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

Here's how he opens his 6-minute-17-second synopsis of "Romeo and Juliet":

"In the city of Verona, Italy, two families: Montagues, Capulets. Hated each other. Ladies and men, walking down the street. 'Hey you! Montague! Capulet! Montague! Capulet!' Them's fighting words. Out comes the swords; there's fighting in the street."

And, after the lovers have taken their own lives -- it is a tragedy, after all -- here's how he wraps it up:

"Then, in comes everyone else -- they just happen to be hanging around outside the tomb. 'Oh, no, look what happened. This is all our fault. In our children's memory, we must make peace and be friends forever and ever.' So they all make peace, live happily ever after, except for Mercutio and Tybalt, Romeo and Juliet, who are all dead."

Saturday's afternoon session was aimed at children and families. The evening portion of the program was intended for adults and featured different parts of the church's magnificent Gothic interiors for scenes from "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth" and "Othello."

Scenes from "The Tempest" were to be performed in the church's subterranean bowling alley, where performers would roll bowling balls to simulate the storm's thunder, said Linda Addlespurger, director of Hope Academy.

The birthday celebration fit well with the arts academy's year-round focus on the Bard of Avon. Part of Hope Academy's tradition is to encourage its children to enter the Pittsburgh Public Theater's annual Shakespeare monologue and scene contest. Drawing 1,000 to 1,200 entrants each year, the contest selected 22 finalists this school year, and of those, five came from the Hope Academy group, she said.

Among the students demonstrating their chops Saturday was Nasirah Scott, 10, of Point Breeze.

She was impressive playing Bottom in a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," wearing Groucho Marx glasses and mustache as her only costume.

What would she tell other students about how to perform Shakespeare?

"I would tell kids it's important to know what your character is so you know what's going on, and know those Shakespeare words. The teachers also train us to enunciate and really express our character by using gestures and how to say our words with volume and tone."

Of course, there is also plenty of stage combat in Shakespeare, and Hope Academy teacher Tonya Lynn and her husband, Adam Rutledge, were on hand to convey some of the tricks of the trade.

Calling out to the audience for what moves they wanted to see in a confrontation between the two of them, they ended up with this sequence: She spit on him, he slapped her, she kicked him in the stomach, he punched her and then she leveled him with a clothesline forearm -- all without anyone laying a hand on someone.

It's all a matter of misdirection and "knapping," they taught, which is the term for clapping or slapping a thigh to simulate the sound of a slap or punch.

"Everyone clap!" Mr. Rutledge ordered. "Great! You just made the sound of 57 people getting hit in the face."

"So that's a quick look at what we do as stage fight choreographers," Ms. Lynn told the audience.

"We take two characters who don't like each other, we figure out how to express the way in which they don't like each other, and we teach everyone how to do that safely," she said, as her husband lay on the ground, groaning loudly from the body blow he never received.

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar.

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