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Downtown Denver will be a stage for students and Shakespeare on Thurday

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Brian Freeland has been enjoying listening to his 5-year-old son rehearsing Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech — with a parent’s knowing grin.

“It is quite humorous to watch him recite that speech so emphatically in places — and glossing right over those parts that won’t really hit him until his teen years,” said Freeland, founder of Denver’s LIDA Project experimental theater.

Tate Freeland is in kindergarten at Steele Elementary, where he’ll join 20 classmates reciting lines from Shakespeare as part of Thursday’s 26th annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival.

Each May, about 4,000 students from kindergarten to high school dress up in Elizabethan costumes and perform more than 400 Shakespearean scenes on 12 indoor and outdoor stages that spread from Skyline Park to the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The day begins with a colorful parade, sword-fighting, authentic period music and dancing, and all kinds of ancillary fun, including the Challenge Bowl, focusing this year on “Othello.” The point is to encourage a new generation of Shakespeare appreciators.

Tate has been rehearsing under teacher Margaret Hunter since October. They’ve been making costumes and talking about interpretations. One source of ongoing disagreement in the Freeland household is the “Parting is such sweet sorrow” line from “Romeo and Juliet.”

He’s pretty sure the line goes, “Party is such sweet sorrow.”

“That’s the way all my friends say it at school,” Tate said. Emphatically.

Tate has been working so hard that his 3-year-old sister, Lillian, is already quoting Shakespeare by proximity.

“The other day, we were in the car when an ad came on the radio for the Denver Center’s production of ‘Othello,’ ” Brian Freeland said. “Tate heard Shakespeare mentioned, and he got so excited. He wanted to know what that story was all about.

Explaining “Othello” to a 5-year-old “is definitely a challenge.”

Freeland’s answer: It’s a story about not letting your temper get the best of you.

On Thursday, Tate will dress as Macbeth. He’ll don a ruffled shirt, a kilt, a crown and tights. “His teacher said he was the only kid confident enough to pull off the tights,” said his mother, Catherine Worster Freeland.

The class will recite about 30 lines in unison. Tate’s solo is Macbeth’s delirious “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. But his favorite, hands down: “Off with his head,” the death sentence from “Richard III” that spells the end of poor Hastings.

Asking Tate if he realizes exactly what’s going on reveals what a stupid question that is.

“Yeah, . . . it means he’s about to cut off someone’s head,” he says. While clarifying the proper British pronunciation: It’s “Off with his ‘ead.’ ”

Duh. Who said Shakespeare was hard to understand?

The DPS fest gets kids started on Shakespeare before they might be intimidated away by the world’s most produced playwright.

And Tate’s dad — whose theater company is currently staging “Mouse in a Jar,” about a wife chained to a stove under the floorboards of her house — thinks it’s fantastic.

“My association with experimental theater would never have started unless I had a foundation,” he said. “You can’t break the rules unless you know what they are.”

The free festival, started in 1985 by teacher Joe Craft, is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country, having now given 80,000 students the chance to perform.

Last year, a visiting consultant from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., came to Denver to confer Craft with only its third Shakespeare Steward Award.

“There is nothing else even remotely on this scale anywhere else,” Folger’s Michael LoMonico said.

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