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Spotlight on: King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

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King of Shadows by Susan Cooper Susan Cooper, King of Shadows

Nathan Field is an actor chosen to perform in the widely acclaimed Company of Boys, an American troupe that performs the plays of William Shakespeare in the original way, with an all-male cast. The group has gathered in Cambridge, MA, to rehearse their roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar. However, this is no ordinary performance. The Company of Boys is scheduled to play the new Globe Theatre in London, a replica of the famed theater in Southwark where the plays debuted 400 years ago.

Other than a little tension amongst the actors, Nat is having a great time. Staying busy keeps his mind off his least favorite thing to think about: his parents, who both died when he was very young. Things take a dark turn when Nat comes down with a fever and is curiously diagnosed with bubonic plague, a disease thought to have been defeated hundreds of years ago.

He tries to get some rest, and wakes up in 1599 with everyone around him acting as if nothing is wrong. They were expecting "Nathan Field" to come play Puck in their new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he fits the bill. Everyone certainly seems satisfied with his skill in acting and tumbling. Luckily, Nat still remembers his lines because now playing opposite him as Oberon is local actor and playwright Will Shakespeare (even though, according to the Essential Shakespeare Handbook, "No performance of the play ... was recorded during Shakespeare's lifetime"). But when will they discover that he is not the Nathan Field they were expecting. What has happened to that Nathan Field, the boy whose place he has taken? Will this Nathan Field ever get back to his own time?

In King of Shadows, author Susan Cooper, probably best known for her Dark Is Rising series of books, presents an unbelievable sequence of events in a plausible fashion grounded in realism. Will turns out to be much more down-to-earth than our current ultra-respect of his works would seem to allow, becoming a father figure to Nat in a subplot that is sentimental without overdoing it. Cooper portrays Elizabethan London with a vitality that delights Natís senses (except his sense of smell in a time when hygiene was not a high priority), and she presents history through an entertaining narrative that makes learning fun (and local when Cooper compares Londonís Thames River to Bostonís Charles, and finds them both very brown).

Nevertheless, the most dramatic result of reading King of Shadows was that it fired an interest in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play I have neither read nor seen, but now feel I know intimately. It also reminded me what a wonderful experience acting is, and anyone who has enjoyed time on the stage will especially appreciate that part of it. (Anyone wishing to see the play actually being performed by children should try to find a copy of the difficult-to-find film, The Children's Midsummer Night's Dream -- your library may have a copy.)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Gardner News. Copyright 2006.

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