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Students perform Shakespeare's spooky side

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Wearing brand new costumes, with price tags still dangling from their sleeves and size stickers still stuck to their chests, two student-actors practice making faces.

An actress, dressed in brown, sticks her tongue out, curls it up, and tries to touch her nose. An actor, wearing dark blue, lets his eyes roll back, showing the whites, while his pupils flicker, trying to focus on the inside of his forehead.

He grins.

"I have an emergency," someone says, and Clayton State University Theater Director Phillip DePoy turns around and raises his eyebrows.

"Hamlet's locked in the closet," the student says.

His eyebrows go higher.

"I accidentally shut the door to the costume closet door and it locked and Hamlet's locked inside."

"She's inside?" he says.

"Yeah," she says. "Do we have a key?"

"She can open it from the inside," he says.

"Oh. She can?"

"Yeah," he says, and he smiles. "Tell her to tuuuuurn the handle."

The student rushes off and DePoy starts to chuckle.

"That's good," he says. "I got to remember that: Hamlet's locked in the closet."

On stage, in a Clayton State class room, Wednesday night, three girls pulled knee pads over their ankles, up their legs, to their knees, rolling their tights down over the cushion. Thirteen students and a pair of professional actors prepared for the dress rehearsal of the college's upcoming performance of "Supernatural Shakespeare," a halloween-themed collage of the spooky, creepy and other-worldly scenes from William Shakespeare's 38 plays.

"The framing devise is the supernatural creatures and supernatural energies, taking different shapes and different forms," DePoy said. "If nothing else, it connects with the students through the idea of scaring the hell out of them, this close to Halloween."

The performance is funded by a number of grants, and is being performed once, on Saturday. The university is tying it into "Shakespeare on the Green," from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, on the quad between the Baker Center and the Business and Health Sciences Building, with three speakers giving talks on the theme of the supernatural elements of the British bard's work, and performances of six high school student's sonnets, music from the period, and a 19th century play modeled after Shakespeare's.

It's rare for Clayton State's theater students to get to work with professional actors, and rare for them to get stage space at Spivey -- "Normally someone has to die for us to get in," DePoy says -- and they're working, Wednesday night, to bring the show together.

On the darkened balcony, in the back of the theater, stage managers Joan McCarthy and Susan Maddox, make notes on the new, single-color costumes -- This one needs a size larger, this one a size smaller. Get a pair of mustard-yellow shorts. Get a more feminine blouse in blue.

When the actors and actresses get into the play's opening position, one contorts herself, lying flat on the stage and grabbing her left ankle with her right hand. Another crouches, puts his face into a snarl and curls his fingers into claws. A third holds her hands to her face and sets her features into a frozen gasp of horror.

"All right," DePoy says. "Everybody put on your monster face."

"Monster faces?" asks an actress.

"Yeah," he says. "Monster face. And breathe."

The troupe takes on the expressions and positions of the tortured and the torturers. They exhale with loud gargles, and inhale with hissing. Someone, standing in a twisted pose, starts to hum. Someone, lying on the floor with hair hanging in her face, starts to groan.

Hamlet -- Shanicka Vail, dressed in orange -- comes to the front of the stage and begins when Shakespeare's prince of Denmark sees his deceased father:

"Angels and ministers of grace defend us! Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd, bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, be thy intents wicked or charitable? Thou comest in such a questionable shape."

The show moves from the wailing and weeping of Hamlet to the trio of witches from the play MacBeth, who dance over an imaginary, boiling cauldron, chanting out the devilish ingredients of the brew:

"Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake -- Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg and owlet's wing, for a charm of powerful trouble."

It took the students some time to learn the lines, DePoy says, with the task made more difficult because the scenes are separated from their narrative. It took some time, too, to teach them the history of the supernatural creatures invoked in the performance and the role they played in Shakespeare's day.

"It was a daily belief," he says. "If the milk's sour, it's because of some fairy, not because it sat too long in the sun. A lot of the explanations for every day occurrences were supernatural."

The troupe moves from scene to scene, with one or two, and sometimes three, actors stepping forward to voice the lines, while behind them, the moaning, groaning, writhing, restless and contorting group gives bodily form to the unseen backdrop of the supernatural world.

"Supernatural Shakespeare" will be performed at Spivey Hall on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. Admission is free.