The future is secure for the Nashville Children’s Theatre. Named by Time magazine as one of America’s five best children’s theaters, the company recently broke ground on a $5.7 million building and renovation project that assures growth and expansion of its stage offerings and educational programs. Moreover, the 2006-7 season is its 75th, which makes NCT far and away the granddaddy of all Nashville theatrical enterprises.
The good karma continues with the company’s opening production. The Shakespeare Stealer is a classy and professionally rendered effort recommended for ages 9 and up, but there’s very little about director Scot Copeland’s staging that marks it as “strictly for kids.”
The script is Gary L. Blackwood’s adaptation of his own successful 1998 novel for young readers. Its strength as a dramatic vehicle is an immediately engaging story—very much in the spirit of such boys’ adventure tales as Treasure Island—and fascinating historical background, in this case the world of Shakespearean theater in Elizabethan England.
Teenage orphan Widge has little education or worldly knowledge. But he is adept at the transcriber’s art, with a facility for putting to paper rapid-fire dictation. A dark, mysterious man named Falconer has great interest in Widge’s unique talent, and so he buys the apprentice from his master. Befuddled but forced into action, Widge is sent off to London, to the Globe Theatre, where he has the imposing task of secretly taking down the entire text of the play Hamlet, as performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Misadventure leads to a happier circumstance for the lad, who has soon enough joined the famous theater company himself. He comes to enjoy the camaraderie of the actors, and his work as a neophyte player even wins approval from the Bard himself. Alas, Widge has not completed his original mission, and the menacing Falconer returns in search of the boy and the manuscript, which has been earmarked for a competing theater company. (These were the days before copyright, so thievery of a good playscript was a fast way to make a buck.)
It’s doubtful there could be anything more delicious for a director and his cast than to mount a story with a theatrical theme. Copeland stages these proceedings with gusto, playing up the contrast in the colorful characters, the joie de vivre of the actor’s life, the fascinating tidbits of history and the customs of the times (no female actors allowed!). He wisely paid attention to such critical markers of authenticity as the use of various Brit accents, which cue us in to the idea of class structure. Equally rewarding are the renditions of brief scenes from Hamlet, all done with a kind of winking humor.
On the adventure level, there’s skulduggery and swordplay, good guys and bad guys, and even a little sincere romance thrown in for lighthearted measure. There are also lessons aplenty for the youngsters: about the value and importance of both giving and receiving praise; about friendship; about family and a sense of belonging.
An experienced cast of nine, most of whom have had prior success on the NCT stage, successfully portray 13 different roles, and their interplay is pretty much seamless. Peter Vann leads the way as Widge. He’s charming throughout, never losing his boyish enthusiasm even when things look bleak. Veteran Henry Haggard again amazes with his versatility, playing two separate but related roles, including that of the dangerous Falconer. Eric D. Pasto-Crosby makes his NCT debut a memorable one as the Lord Chamberlain’s likable and heroic master swordsman. Chip Arnold is an avuncular Shakespeare figure, while Patrick Waller is the theater company’s miscreant and drunkard. Buddy Raper, Rona Carter, Matt Mellon and Jenny Littleton fill out the cast of “poor players” and ancillary characters.
Director Copeland also designed the play’s set, a stylish and believable approximation of the Globe’s backstage that affords us a tantalizing view through to the main playing area. Recordings of atmospheric period music, selected by Dan Brewer, kept the Elizabethan pulse subtly alive. Patricia Taber’s costumes, likewise, were striking for their historic detail and sumptuous elegance.
More should probably be said about author Blackwood’s adaptation, which manages to distill a 200-page work of historical fiction down to 75 minutes of generally sublime playing time. It’s a neat trick, in this case surpassed only by the care with which Copeland & Co. bring it all to life.