Director Dee O’Brien on stage at Hommocks Middle School, where her Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company presents its 39th season March 7-10. Rehearsing a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” behind O’Brien are, from left: Drew Gallagher, Meg Carroll, Ryan Solomon and Rie Ogasawara. Photo by Tania Savayan/The Journal News.
Most after-school afternoons and Saturdays since the fall, the Hommocks Middle School has been a hive of activity, with nearly 100 Mamaroneck High School students filling the auditorium and what seems like every hall within shouting distance of it.
On a recent afternoon, there was a large knot of kids in the main lobby, another cluster near a stairwell, a pair of kids near the stage-right door and a handful or so on the stage-left hall. Everyone was chattering, collaborating, rehearsing, working.
The undeniable queen of this Hommocks hive is a 66-year-old force of nature named Dee O’Brien who, for 39 years, has been nurturing, cajoling and coaxing Shakespeare out of teens, for a labor of love known as The Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company.
This week, the company presents “The Winter’s Tale” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with two casts of each production working hard to please the woman they all call “Dee.”
The scale of the effort — four casts performing six performances of two plays over four days — more closely resembles the Normandy Invasion than a bee hive: The auditorium is Omaha Beach; the stairwell Juno; the main lobby Sword. And it’s always Dee Day.
Each rehearsal begins with a litany of questions from the cast, about costumes and entrances and props, which O’Brien answers dutifully and with just the right mix of Eisenhower and nurturing queen bee.
When O’Brien started the company — which has become a bona fide Mamaroneck institution — she was a 27-year-old English teacher at Hommocks. Retired since 2007 and newly married, O’Brien admits to feeling her age a bit, but she still appears to get the same charge out of the experience.
There have been changes, of course. The students she first taught have graduated and married and have sent their own children to join O’Brien’s merry band of players.
And there are smartphones — “utensils,” as O’Brien calls them derisively — which, she says, have changed the equation.
“I’ve noticed a slight difference,” she says. “There’s still a willingness to work very hard, but I think I see it’s not as easy to embrace the language as it used to be.”
It’s harder to concentrate on Shakespeare’s text when you have a text coming in.
But here the students have been since the fall, commuting from the high school back to their middle school — seniors ferrying underclassmen and getting to know them better.
“It’s how they bond,” says producer Beth Samach. “It’s nostalgic for them to come back here.”
Recent years have seen “King Lear” and “Richard III” and, with each production the passing of knowledge from O’Brien to the students and from one class to the next. The students take each other under their wing, set expectations, build a tradition.
O’Brien is quick to point out that the size of the enterprise makes it impossible to do on her own. She relies heavily on parent producers, whom she dubs “The League of Extraordinary Women.”
Among them is Donna Bellis, the troupe’s vocal and acting coach.
“We like to say if we were one person sharing the same brain and put each of our better halves together, we’d be millionaires and very successful,” Bellis says with a laugh.
“But we’re not,” chirps O’Brien.
“I want to use her speech and her vocal ability,” O’Brien says. “She gets in there and asks the kids to pronounce every consonant. ‘Where’s that D? I want to hear the T. And the V. Where is the V?’
Bellis takes over the lesson with a laugh: “Lean on that L. M’s, N’s, and ing are songs you can elongate. You can sing them. Lean on them.’
“Dee brings concept, relationships to the characters on the stage,” Bellis says. “Dee gives them a time and a place and a purpose and a theme. Dee gives them conflict to overcome in order to accomplish an ultimate goal in the play of getting what they want. She gives them obstacles so they can fight against them. I deliver Dee’s message.”
They certainly put their heads together when it comes to this year’s shows.
“Midsummer” is one of Shakespeare’s most-accessible comedies, with fairies, kings and queens and mortals who fall under their spells. “The Winter’s Tale” is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” not easily categorized, as it begins as a drama, with a jealous and tyrranical king, but pivots midway through into a more comedic piece, with a happy ending.
O’Brien’s home is a repository for all things Semi-Royal, with furniture, props and costumes occupying her basement and garage. When Bill Samela, her husband of six months, first saw the collection, he says “it was overwhelming.” Still, he entered the relationship knowing that the company made O’Brien who she is — and vice versa — and he happily signed on for what he calls “a Shakesperience.”
Junior Leon Schwendener, 16, plays the comic rogue Autolycus in “The Winter’s Tale.”
“I’ve always done serious roles, crying on the stage, so having a chance to play a free-spirited guy breaks me out of a mold,” he says. “I do Shakespeare because I love acting, I love exploring the language and being here with my friends. It’s a community here, a fellowship.”
Schwendener shares the stage with freshman Michael Albert, 14, who plays Clown.
“It’s different than any other extracurricular activity I’ve ever done,” Albert says. “I love acting, too, but this is a different kind of acting. The words and language are different, there are no mikes. It’s fun and hard at the same time to put yourself in the shoes of someone you’re expected to play.”
Both boys are in the high school’s PACE curriculum devoted to the performing arts, but O’Brien’s casts also include swimmers, divers, band kids, soccer and hockey players and debate-team members.
Albert is a fan of his director.
“I’ve only been in the company a year, but I can tell how much effort she puts into this, like spending her own money or being up at three in the morning making line cuts and coming up with ideas,” he says. “Or sacrificing her whole basement for costumes.”
Adds Schwendener: “Making Dee happy is a motivation for bringing it. We want to make her proud.”
By next Monday, the 39th festival will be over. The next Semi-Royal season — the 40th — will begin to take shape later this month, when O’Brien and Samela drive to Miami with two cats and a dog and two shows to choose.
But that’s a Shakesperience for another year.
The 39th season of The Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Winter’s Tale.” Richard North Auditorium, Hommocks Middle School, 130 Hommocks Road, Larchmont. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 7:30 p.m. March 7, 8 p.m. March 9 and 1 p.m. March 10. “The Winter’s Tale” at 8 p.m. March 8, 2 p.m. March 9 and 7 p.m. March 10. $12, $8 for students. Go to the Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company website.