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In A New "Midsummer," Metro Students Rock The Bard

Lucy Gellman | May 3rd, 2023

Patricio Sosa III looked out over the audience, suspended between realities. In one universe, the room was just a high school cafeteria, light scattered across the floor from the street-facing windows. In another, a multi-level theater rose around him, complete with soaring scaffolding and a second story. Metropolitan Business Academy faded away, and an enchanted forest took its place.

“I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream!” he exclaimed, a curtain of moss swaying gently behind him. A smile tugged at the edges of his mouth, then migrated to his eyes. “It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’ because it hath no bottom.” Laughter bubbled up around him.

Last Tuesday, Sosa and his peers created that world in an abridged A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a collaboration with Elm Shakespeare Company and Metropolitan Business Academy drama teacher Stephanie Kelly. As they slipped into a world of fairy kings, royal engagements, botanical wonders and spellbound love triangles, cast members held tight to the value of magic and mischief in everyday interactions.

By the end, the performance spoke to the power of site-specific theater and comedy as a form of education. It received support from the Seedlings Foundation and New Haven’s Neighborhood Cultural Vitality Grant Program. Sarah Bowles, Elm’s director of education, directed the show alongside Fiona Jennings.

“It’s an old favorite, and a really, really fun show,” Bowles said of the play as cast members got into costume, ran their lines, and turned the school’s front office into a multi-part green room. “I knew that I wanted to pick something that might make students fall in love with Shakespeare.”

If the cast is any indication, students have. The collaboration was born months ago, after support from the Seedlings Foundation meant that Elm Shakespeare could grow its educational programming in the New Haven Public Schools. For years, the organization has run a program at Mauro Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School, creating a portal to Shakespeare that students might not otherwise have. When they had the chance to add a school, Metro stuck out for its lack of an arts emphasis. Kelly, who arrived at Metro seven years ago, jumped on board.

Then there was the matter of the show itself, a comedy where everything goes wrong, and then is righted. Written in the late 16th century, A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows Theseus, Duke of Athens (Mekhi Robertson, who is also Oberon), on the eve of his marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Isabella Jamison, who also plays Fairy Queen Titania). The wedding is big news: a cast of craftsmen (Sosa, Elisa Perez, Makayla Kidd, Milin Matias and Keila Cintron) prepares to delight them with depictions of Pyramus and Thisbe, Ovid’s damned lovers, on their wedding night.

As they rehearse in the woods, complications are brewing back at court. Egeus (Atlas Salter, who also plays a riveting Puck) doesn’t like that Lysander (Adinah Wali) is in love with his daughter Hermia (Nada ZaimSassi). He’d prefer she be with Demetrius (Janiya Greene)—so much so that he gives her the choice of a convent or death. But Hermia is smarter than that: she heads for the woods with Lysander.

Her friend Helena (Mariam Ahmed) tells Demetrius that the two have fled, thinking that he will fall for her now that Hermia is gone. No dice: Demetrius runs after Hermia. Enter a vexatious fairy kingdom (all praise to Salter as Puck), bickering over an adopted child, and a forest full of divination and magic, and Shakespeare has created a wondrous, messy and at times impish snow globe that feels close enough to touch.

At Metro, students made the Bard entirely their own, using the school’s architecture as a built-in set. No sooner had a drumbeat signaled the start of the show (a nod to Bowles, who has made it Elm’s signature) that Robertson and Jamison appeared on the staircase above, looking out over Athens. Where there had been lunch tables and cacophonous students just hours before, they now envisioned a vast kingdom, stretching out far beyond the Long Island Sound. On the building’s second floor, a row of chrome-colored lockers sat silent, save a janitor moving through the hallway.

“Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/Draws on apace,” Robertson began, and a lyrical, laughter-laced universe rolled into motion around him. At the base of the staircase, Egeus waited for a word with the duke, his shoulders squared as he exhaled a hello, then made his case. Behind him, Demetrius and Lysander appeared, and for a moment the air crackled with the tension between them. Hermia swept in, raising her voice as she pleaded for cooler heads to prevail.

It was Metro, as even Metro had never seen itself before. As court gave way to the forest, students unfurled lengths of thick, seafoam-green netting over the staircase, turning the structure into a giant curtain of moss. Beneath the stairs, an open space became a sort of woman cave, with twinkling white lights and a soft, cushy chair. With a coordinated spin, the cafeteria’s white, rounded columns became trees, woven with fuzzy green and drops of bright color.

With each line, students let themselves sink deeper into the story. As she shape-shifted between Hippolyta and Titania, Jamison was reserved until she was suddenly resolute, sharp tongued in the face of Oberon’s obstinance. As she swept onto the stage in a long white gown and matching hijab, Ahmed/Helena could have just as easily acted the lines with no words at all, her face a dramatic canvas. When her mouth scrunched in disapproval, it was as if the whole audience could hear her thoughts. So too as Demetrius rebuffed her affections, and her eyes flew open, soft and wide.

As the play deepened, it gave students an opening to suspend their disbelief and get strange and silly, with interludes from REO Speedwagon and Bryan Adams woven into the 16th-century language. In Midsummer, Puck’s use of a bewitched flower makes Demetrius and Lysander fall in love with Helena, the two stumbling after and around her like well-coiffed, more human versions of Nosferatu. For even the strictest of Shakespeare purists, “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” seemed right on time as Puck worked his botanical magic.

At another moment, Matias conquered his fear of appearing onstage, leaning into the role’s humor as he appeared in a light, multi-colored top and long green skirt as Thisbe. So too as Jamison became a love-drunk Titania, letting herself pretend to fall in love with a donkey (Sosa III) that brayed and trudged across the stage.

No one, perhaps, got this as much as Salter and Sosa, who grasped onto the play’s language and wit from the start. When Salter came out in full fairy-meets-satyr regalia, the whole room’s mood shifted, mmmms and oh!s and ahhhs coming from the audience. As her Puck got to work, fixing and unfixing the matters of the human heart, she sailed around the space, sometimes close to prancing.

Sosa, meanwhile, mined the character for humor. Bottom is a tough needle to thread: he bloviates, interrupts his colleagues, insists he knows what to do and is often the butt of a linguistic joke. From the moment he hit the stage, Sosa leaned all in, letting both physical humor and sharp timing take over.

One moment, he would be over-acting a tragic scene, to reveal its farce in real time. The next, he was flopping on the floor, exposing the humor in Pyramus’ sheer lack of planning.

It seemed too soon, indeed, when Salter stepped forward, the words crisp and clear as they rolled over the audience, and ended the show. “Else the Puck a liar call/So, good night unto you all,” Salter said. “Give me your hands, if we be friends/And Robin shall restore amends.”

Behind her, cast members breathed a collective sign, then burst into smiles. They had one more performance to go, and many were already thinking about what play to do next year.

That sense of community has been months in the making. As vocal warmups and tongue twisters floated out from the school’s administrative offices Tuesday night, actors moved through the space in costume, marking their movements one last time before curtain. Many practiced speaking from their gut and chest, instead of their heads.

Sitting at a lunch table in the corner, Salter described Puck—the “right hand man of the King of the Fairies”—as the role she was meant to play. In youth theater productions at Arts In CT, she always ended up as the villain: Salter was Scar in The Lion King and later, Ms. Hannigan in Annie. So when she had the chance to step into Shakespeare, she knew exactly who she wanted to be. And “I knew that I wanted horns,” she added with a smile.

“I love it,” she said. “I love it so much. It really allows me to be mischievous. I like to cause controlled chaos—that’s what Puck does.” She credited assistant Jennings with helping her break down the Elizabethan language, so that every line seemed accessible.

Ahmed, who is a sophomore, agreed that Helena—her first dramatic role ever—felt both “odd” and thrilling to step into. At school, “I’m definitely a talker,” she said. “I like people.” But Helena, who fights with her best friend, gets mad at both Demetrius and Lysander, and is headstrong to a fault, was a whole new person.

“It taught me how not to be scared and shine a little more,” she said. “You’re a whole new person [on stage] and you get to learn a lot about yourself. You get to learn what you’re good and bad at. You get to explore what you find amusing, and what you don’t.”

For other students, the introduction to theater was more gradual. At a nearby table, sophomores Greene and Wali had not yet gotten into costume. Closing her eyes for a moment, Wali ran over her lines a final time, the book never that far from her hand. As a self-described giggly person, she said that she’d welcomed Lysander as an acting challenge.

In the play, Puck’s mischief has the character falling suddenly, mysteriously in love with Helena, in a sequence that had the two running across the building’s second floor in full view of the audience. Through the show, she said that she’s found the ability to grow in playing the role, and relax a little when she’s onstage. Through Shakespeare, she’s learned not to sweat the small stuff quite as much.

“I like my character,” Wali said. “It’s giving risk. The character I do, I like to make it feel like it’s me. When I walk offstage, I’m Adinah. But onstage, I’m Lysander.”

“I don’t like thinking that if I mess up it’ll be the end of the world,” she added. “I just keep going. It taught me that I don’t need to make it perfect.”

That was also true for Matias, who said the play helped bring him out of his shell. A senior at the school, Matias described himself as generally quiet, a “pretty shy guy” who only recently started willingly participating in his classes. When he landed the role of Francis Flute, he was excited, he said. But then he realized it entailed playing Thisbe. Initially, he said, he was reluctant to appear onstage in a dress, despite Shakespeare’s long history of casting men as women.

“I was uncomfortable with the fact that people would see it,” he said. “But I pushed through it.” On stage, he embraced the role, hamming it up as Thisbe grew faint at the sight of a lion, jumped to foregone conclusions in the woods, and put her face to a make-believe wall, through which she could just see Pyramus.

Sosa, who is a freshman at the school and acted across from Matias, praised the show as “magical.” While “I’m a people person” with my friends, Sosa is generally more quiet and reserved in the classroom and on the stage, where he was making his debut.

“The point of Nick Bottom is to make people laugh,” he said, his mom, Maritza Rivera, in tears as he spoke. “And they did.”

Learn more about Elm Shakespeare Company here.


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