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Wish you were Shakespeare: NYSTI’s King of Shadows.

Not Enough Will in This World
By Kathy Ceceri

King of Shadows
Book by Adrian Mitchell, music by Will Severin, directed by Greg Banks
New York State Theatre Institute, through March 19

King of Shadows is based on a young-adult novel by Newbery Medal-winner Susan Cooper, and therein lies the rub. What could have been a wonderful romp about a child actor mysteriously whisked back to 1599 to appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theatre with none other than Shakespeare never completely leaves the ground, tethered to this world by the conventions of a genre that calls for unbearable tragedy in every young protagonist’s life. But in this original adaptation, the New York State Theatre Insititute wisely plays up the magic in the story, toning down a lot of the gloom and doom. And with exquisite sets and costumes by British designer Claire Lyth, and a pleasing Renaissance-style score, King of Shadows gives young audiences a glimpse of life in Elizabeth I’s London.

Fourteen-year-old Broadway veteran P.J. Verhoest plays Nat Field, an acrobatic actor from South Carolina with a sweet singing voice, chosen to play Puck with an American acting troupe called The Company of Boys at the newly-rebuilt Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames. Like many young heroes of classic literature, Nat has lost his parents, but Cooper didn’t stop there. She has Nat describe finding the body of his father, who shot himself in despair over the death of his wife from cancer, lying in a spreading pool of blood. Still, whether thanks to Mitchell’s adaptation, Banks’ direction, or Verhoest’s own lively spirit, the Nat of the play isn’t the angst-ridden ’tween of the novel. He’s upbeat, energetic, optimistic: the kind of kid you’d expect to be chosen to play an “aerial sprite.” That change makes him a whole lot easier to watch for two hours.

NYSTI’s resident star John Romeo is well cast in the dual role of Arby, the almost menacing modern-day director, and the more amiable 16th-century theater owner Richard Burbage. David Bunce’s Shakespeare generously takes on the role of father figure for the troubled Nat (and though we are in young-adult territory, mercifully there are no dark overtones to the playwright’s attraction to the boy). Nat’s other champion is Gil, played by Rob Dalton, whose strong baritone makes him a convincing Shakespearean actor as he rehearses the role of Puck’s master Oberon.

The nine younger cast members hold their own with the more experienced actors, speaking clearly and performing some well-executed tumbling routines. One of the interesting conceits of the play is to show how boys in the Bard’s day were used to fill the female roles, although they’re given only a few words to speak in the all-too-brief Dream excerpts. It’s a shortcoming of both the novel and its stage adaptation that, even though Cooper uses one of Shakespeare’s comedies for her framework, there’s very little Shakespeare and virtually no comedy in King of Shadows. In presenting a sort of Shakespeare Lite for the middle school set, the creators of this show may have sold its audience short. On the other hand, given its many masterful theatrical touches, King of Shadows just may inspire a student or two to delve more deeply into the real thing.

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