GARDINER — When they appear on stage Wednesday, Katelyn Boyington and Emalee Couture will be acting drunk and wearing Hammer pants and neon shirts.
But anyone listening to the words coming out of their mouths will realize it’s actually high culture — specifically, Shakespeare — on the stage of Gardiner Area High School
“Does not our life consist of the four elements?” Couture asked during rehearsal Friday.
“Faith, so they say; but I think it rather consists of eating and drinking,” Boyington said.
“Thou’rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink,” Couture concluded.
Then they started dancing and singing the refrain of the Bee Gees’ song “Stayin’ Alive,” a sign that this interpretation of “Twelfth Night” transposes the story from the 1600s to the 1970s and 1980s.
Couture said the song seemed like a period-appropriate representation of the “YOLO” — you only live once — attitude of their characters, the comic figures Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
The performance of “Twelfth Night” their English class is doing in 12 minutes is just one of many creative interpretations of Shakespeare that will be part of Lit Fest on Wednesday.
Lit Fest, started in about 1990 by English teacher Rie Kittredge and retired English teacher Jan Michaud, takes place every other year and typically involves about 150 students. Every junior or senior English class can take part, but not every one chooses to do so.
This year, however, is the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Interest was stronger than ever, and 193 students will perform at Lit Fest.
To make sure everyone gets a line, the teachers select scenes with lots of characters — that means no balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” — and sometimes split a character into two or more parts, then divvy up lines accordingly.
To fit in even more participants, one scene on Wednesday will feature William Shakespeare having a dream haunted by characters coming in to speak their dying lines.
Teachers avoid giving the biggest roles to students with theater experience in order to push students who have never performed on stage. Kittredge said the students learn many skills that are part of the school’s guiding principles.
“They have to be an involved citizen. They have to be a good communicator. They have to be a problem solver and a thinker,” she said. “You cannot put this together without having those skills, or developing them if you didn’t have them.”
The classes get to decide how they want to approach their scenes, which may involve changing the setting to make them more interesting or relevant. One class followed the example of “West Side Story” by setting the love story of “Romeo and Juliet” against a backdrop of warring gangs. A scene from “Much Ado About Nothing” will be performed in two ways, one more traditional and the other through the filter of rural Maine, complete with Carhratt work clothing and work boots for costumes.
Susan Folsom’s class picked up on the similarities between “Hamlet” and “The Lion King” and created a mashup featuring characters and dialogue from both the play and the Disney movie.
Folsom said the juxtaposition shows how well Shakespeare’s work holds up, and she hopes it will give students more appreciation for plays that some have already read for class.
“They’ve had exposure, but I think this really makes it come alive,” Folsom said.
Joe Klofas gave his two Advanced Placement classes scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He said they’re very funny, but students usually need convincing of that.
“I hope they find it fun. It’s supposed to be fun,” he said. “They don’t understand that (Shakespeare) was essentially an entertainer. They hear so much about how great he is and what a classic it is.”
Klofas said he hopes Lit Fest will inspire its participants and audience to read Shakespeare on their own and see productions at colleges and local theaters.
Senior Bri Mosher said that when she was a freshman, she struggled to understand a “Romeo and Juliet” scene in which members of the Montague and Capulet households confront each other. The vocabulary and syntax stumped her. Now she’s performing in that scene.
“I had no conception of what was happening. Now the more walk I through it, I’m understanding the humor, the really quiet humor that you don’t get unless you read it a couple times,” she said.
Senior Alex Trask, who’s playing a Capulet servant in the same scene, said Lit Fest is giving him confidence that could help him in other contexts, such as making presentations in class or at work.
“It’s something I never would want to do, get up and perform on stage, so it’s kind of pushed me to do something new. I just don’t like being up in front of big groups of people,” he said. “It’s been easier than I thought it would be.”
Couture and Boyington said playing Belch and Aguecheek, respectively, has helped them understand that Shakespeare is not all about love, tragedy and death. It has also given them a taste of theater, something they haven’t been able to fit into their schedules because they both play three sports.
“It’s a lot of fun for us because we’re the comedic relief. We get to just act ridiculous,” Couture said. “We wouldn’t walk around the halls acting like we do up there.”
Boyington added, “It gives us a whole different world to operate in and to kind of reveal ourselves in a different way.”