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Troupe of Ben Oaks tweens are counting down to their production of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'

The Baltimore Sun

Labor Day is the unofficial end of the lazy days of summer, but for more than a dozen young residents of a Severna Park community, it began the countdown to showtime.

Since July, the tweens of Ben Oaks have been rehearsing almost daily, twisting their tongues around the "thees," "thys" and "ays" of William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night and their brains around the complexities of its mistaken identities and romances.

"Sometimes it was a drag--my friends all running off to do things, and I had to practice," said Jamie Murray, 14, a freshman at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville. "But I like the people in the cast."

The play is scheduled to open at 5 p.m. Saturday, but "that's loose time," said director Catherine Thomas. People bring picnics and wine, and it takes a while for the crowd to finish their meals. The locale on the community common, a grassy lawn next to a narrow stretch of the Severn River, urges this Shakespearean revision: "All the world's a stage -- even a beach."

It's a perfect setting for Shakespeare, said Thomas, a Kentucky native who spent 12 years with her British husband, Vince Thomas, in Britain, where out-of-doors productions of Shakespeare were the norm. While in Britain, Thomas performed at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for a summer program at Oxford University and performed in radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corp.

Since moving to Ben Oaks 10 years ago, she's directed two other Shakespearian productions for the neighborhood children.

She said that when she was 14, she was intimidated by Shakespeare. Her cast members won't suffer the same misfortune. She said she's heard from college graduates who were in her first Ben Oaks production -- of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- who said they saw that play when they were in London.

"And you go, 'Yesss!' " said Thomas, whose day job is the production of videos for individual and school occasions. "I'm not trying to build great actors," just help develop social skills and produce "kids who enjoy the theater and aren't afraid of Shakespeare.

"I think we so often underestimate children," said Thomas, who also earned a master's degree in fine arts at Ohio State University, acted in New York and ran a children's theater in Tulsa, Okla. "Given the information, they can assimilate it just as we can.

"The [Ben Oaks youngsters] are very, very smart," she said. "If I didn't have that, I really couldn't do it."

This version of Twelfth Night runs for about an hour, thanks to judicious cutting by the director. "I think an hour is what kids can maintain," said Thomas, whose goal is "to get some sense out of the line as spoken by a child."

Thomas began this summer's rehearsals by introducing her aspiring actors to the play's complicated plot. It's an intriguing tale of a twin brother and sister who are separated in a shipwreck and lead improbable lives before being reunited, she said. Then she explained the play to the children, line by line.

"To tell the truth," said Laura Muscovich, a 12-year-old eighth-grader at Severna Park Middle School who plays the heroine, Viola. "I like putting myself in the character's shoes. [I like] getting to know the rest of the cast as they are in the play and," she added, "to pretend for a while."

"The people I was working with made it so much fun and easy to learn," said Caitie Laughlin, another Severna Park Middle School eighth-grader. The 13-year-old said, "We have practice every day. I love it."

A third SPMS eighth-grader, Julie Kuhlman, 13, has a dual role: a part in the play and director of the pre-show, a Renaissance street fair featuring the neighborhood's youngest performers tumbling, dancing and playing musical instruments.

A former gymnast, Julie, who plays soccer and is starting winter swimming this year, donated some of her "sequined" leotards to the little performers.

Behind the scenes, Thomas' husband handles the sound; they rely on small microphones placed on the ground in front of the actors. Ed Hirsch is the set builder, and the kids are the painters. They've produced beautiful canvases with flowers, trees and even columns with ivy, said Thomas. She put out an appeal for old prom dresses and evening gowns, and the donations of "costumes" poured in.

Not content to educate just her actors, before curtain time Thomas posts a synopsis of the play on the community Web site.

"Please read this," it says. "I don't want you to spend the evening working out what's going on. I want you to enjoy the children's performances."

Now in the final week of rehearsal, Thomas said, "This is the make-or-break moment. Either it comes together, or it's going to be a frazzled mess." Apparently, the results are in. And they are good. The kids can't wait to get to the beach, Thomas said.

"When one of the actors says, 'Oh, I understand,' that's when it's just great. This is so much fun."

The rain date for "Twelfth Night" is 5 p.m. Sunday.

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