Off, off, off Bardway

The rest of the world may view them as fifth-graders, but director Jim Amberg sees the collection of kids listening intently to him in the Orchard Hill Elementary School music room as an acting troupe that knows every word of "Romeo and Juliet." Well, an abridged, slightly modernized version.

But still, the 10- and 11-year-olds who will perform today and Friday in front of standing-room-only audiences have memorized not only a 34-page script, but the cues, gestures and tones of voice necessary to put on a performance of Shakespeare's enduring story of star-crossed lovers.

This is the 10th year Amberg has volunteered to stage a Shakespeare play at Orchard Hill, which is part of the Phoenix-Talent School District.

Amberg is a retired teacher and principal who works at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a house manager and access coordinator. Like many educators, he believes that Elizabethan language and themes can deliver powerful messages that are relevant to children today.

As Patience Jankovsky, 10, who plays Gregory, explains "Romeo and Juliet": "The families are enemies and they bully each other, and look what happens?"

Amberg wants the student performers and their audience — which ranges from kindergartners to great-grandparents — to understand every word.

Although he stayed as true to the original play as possible, he had altered the script, inspired by his 1968 copy of "Shake Hands With Shakespeare: Eight Plays for Elementary Schools" by Albert Cullum, and a narration written by Orchard Hill fifth-grade teacher Terry McNaught.

The three-hour play is truncated to one crisp hour, thanks largely to seven narrators — angelic looking girls dressed in period gowns — who explain the unfolding plot, using a mix of the Bard's words and modern colloquialisms.

The chorus says these familiar lines:

"Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

The script then allows Taylor Wallack to say: "Let's hope someone gets a clue before it's too late." A permanent sign next to the stage where the students perform reads, "No Bullies Allowed."

When Rylan Rogers, who plays Romeo with a seriousness beyond his years, says to the apothecary, "More men are killed by gold than poison," classmate Griffen French is sitting, in between his scenes, in the adjacent gym with his real-life friend Garrett Fredrickson.

Explaining the play's ending in his own words, Griffen, who plays Lord Capulet, says to Garrett, who plays onstage enemy Lord Montague, "Our children are dead. Let's be friends." But then they agree that sometimes it's OK to take sides. During their practice time together, they discovered that the Capulets are Duck fans and the Montagues are Beaver fans, except, of course, for some of the girls, who just don't care.

Amberg spent two months with the students, blocking scenes and teaching them the art of acting. Students, standing on the sidelines and watching the performers on stage, mouthed the words. "We had the time to learn," says Amberg.

He says he still remembers the words of "Julius Caesar" taught by a favorite high school teacher.

"Someday, these students will be in an English class and the teacher will not be thrilled to teach Shakespeare," says Amberg, 64. "And I hope they will reflect on this and know that it can be an enjoyable, meaningful experience." Understanding every word did lead to some awkward moments.

At first, Griffen didn't understand the scolding words "disobedient wretch" he was to say to Katelyn Hanson, cast as Juliet. He knew what disobedient means, but wretch? Said a classmate: "It's like the 'B' word." Then there was the term "bite my thumb." Ummmm. Embarrassed looks. "It's like giving the middle finger," responded another student.

No one, however, seemed confused about Romeo kissing Juliet. Shrugs all around.

As polished and practiced as the group is, there are a few mishaps in between choreographed movements at Wednesday's dress rehearsal.

Juliet's black shoe pokes through a tear at the bottom of her gown. The apothecary forgets her potion backstage. An animated sword fight chips off a wooden tip, and Garrett as Lord Montague mutters "Oops!" when his sword slips through a crack between the stage and the stage extension.

But the few times someone forgets a line, eyes roll or a tongue is bitten while concentrating, the troupe keeps in character. And seconds later, the show continues on.

Backstage, there are hushed laughs over the costumes. One boy complains that his tights are killing him. Another says that fourth-graders laughed at his knickers and makeup, but he told them they would get their turn next year. One boy admits he was a little too animated in the sword fight scenes at first, "but he got himself under control," pipes Ellah Mills, his dueling partner.

When not on stage, cast members do schoolwork on tables in the gym or confidently fill in the answers to a "Romeo and Juliet" crossword puzzle (13 Down: Where does the story take place? Luke McGivney uses a green pen to write "Verona").

A few weeks ago, the cast received advice from Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors Daniel José Molina and Alejandra Escalante, who are starring in "Romeo and Juliet" in the Bowmer Theatre.

The children were told to pour the emotions of stage fright into their portrayal on stage. That screaming wasn't the only way to show anger. To speak with conviction.

They also learned that writing lines down helps to memorize them. Rylan practiced Romeo's part over winter break in front of his dad, Patrick, and his dog, Yukon.

Joceyln McCullough, who plays Lady Montague, said she couldn't relate to a mother grieving over her dead son — "since I don't have one" — and the OSF actors taught her to let her voice go up high to pretend she was in pain.

All agree that dressing up and performing in a play is fun, like Halloween with lines.

China Larsen, who is cast as the nurse, has acted before in Rogue Community College plays with her dad, Chance. She sees acting as a future career.

"China is really good," says Alessandro Rios, who plays a guard. "When she's moaning 'my lady, my lady' on stage, we can hear her in the gym."

After the final dress rehearsal, Amberg offers last-minute reminders: Dancers, don't walk. Use the tone of your voice to express what you're saying. If a prop is missing or a costume gets ripped, don't stop the scene.

Then he asks them all to look him in the eye:

"The audience may see you as students," he says, "but to me you are a professional theater company. We are done practicing. It's time for our first performance!"

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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