First Stage’s Young Company Presents Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Part 1)

I am sure that I have attended a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 in the past but it was obviously some time ago. But I can’t imagine a more determined and enthusiastic presentation of Henry IV than the one performed by First Stage’s Young Company.

Thomas Bastardo, Alice Rivera (center) Maya Thomure, and cast in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

First Stage is well known for its boisterous colorful story telling through large ensemble musicals that feature young through adult actors. The Young Company has a different role at First Stage and Milwaukee theater in general. The company features high school age actors, often members of the First Stage Theater Academy, working through significant dramas and original plays. In many cases, Shakespeare, as we have here with Henry IV and previously with a very strong and complete Macbeth (see my response here). And instead of performing at the large Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, these dramas play out at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center in a very intimate stage in the round. And since it is usually general admission here, my biggest decision is where to sit! LOL!

And given the size and intimacy of the stage, very few props or set pieces come into play, and they often are rearranged to play multiple roles on set. And this just brings the text and the acting that much more in focus for the cast and audience.

Alice Rivera (front) with Paxton Haley and Thomas Bastardo in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So, Henry IV! The king is played by Alice Rivera, who maintains the regal bearing of a King of England, even in the face of doubt…as plans to Crusade to the Holy Land fall apart as a local uprising against the crown needs immediate attention. Rivera shows us a king who can rally his troops, make strategic decisions, be a bit pompous and unbending, and then be cruel in conquest.

And although Henry IV is the name of the play, the actual major character is Henry, or Harry, or Hal, the Prince of Wales and the future king. Hal is played by Maya Thomure who gives us the perfect blend of youth seeking fun and recreation away from the court, while also feeling at times the weight of his position on his shoulders, but who willingly takes up his responsibilities as a defender of the crown when his father finally calls. Of course in his rebellion against his ‘lot in life’, he has an anti-father companion in Sir John Falstaff who he loves well…although he feels free to tease him constantly.

Abram Nelson, Max Larson (center) and Elena Marking in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And Lola Onorato presents the Falstaff that we expect to see in the Henry plays. Big of imposture, big in braggadocio, big in appetites, and a true friend of Hal, Onorato brings it all to the stage.

And this is a Shakespeare history play, so there is swordplay and battle scenes. Director Marcella Kearns and Fight Director Christopher Elst, have provided action galore and obviously grounded the cast in the use of epees and rapiers. The clank clank of metal on metal was a delight for any fan of Shakespeare and/or knightly combat.

Paxton Haley and Elena Marking in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

There is a lot of activity here and a lot of text. Kearns keeps the troupe moving and involved and they presented two hours of Shakespearean dialogue, clearly, cleanly, and engagingly! One technique that I enjoyed was at scene change, when a principal character lingers on stage for a moment longer while their cohort makes their exit…and for just a moment shares the stage with the new characters entering to take up the next scene. That small stroke added some gravitas and continuity to the action and the acting for me.

Evie Patrick and William Swoboda in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Henry IV part 1 is being performed through December 17, 2023. More information and ticket info can be found here. Run time is about two hours plus an intermission. Recommended ages are teen to adult.

Extra Credit Reading: The Playbill This includes more info on cast, characters, and crew!!

Part 2?

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