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?

The Forgotten Girl, A World Premiere Presentation by First Stage Theater!

In a Milwaukee theater season rife with premieres, First Stage Theater brings us one more with the incredible play, The Forgotten Girl, adapted by Idris Goodwin from a novel by India Hill Brown.

First Stage has two sides to their coin. If you have only attended their presentations at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, you are familiar with their bright and noisy side…theater that presents some serious topics and strong story lines but built around large ensembles with colorful sets and music, song, and dance. As an adult theater goer I am intrigued by the flip side, the plays they present in their home base in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Their theater in the round here is far more intimate, so these plays generally feature smaller casts, very simple stage/prop settings and are more often dramas…and are more reliant on the youth actors in their company. The Forgotten Girl is a prime example.

Now I am going to try to describe what The Forgotten Girl is all about without too many spoilers. The play has so many layers and for them all to work together effectively for you when you visit First Stage, I need to be careful not to give too much away. But I will start with this: this play heavily emphasizes the importance of family, community, and abiding friendships. And how our history can easily be overlooked or totally forgotten. And just for a moment, forgotten is the key word.

Madison Jones and Santana Marie Hayden (back) in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But of course the first question is, who is the forgotten girl? As the play starts that would seem to be Iris, a curious energetic twelve year old who seems to have been snubbed in a number of ways at her school and by her peers. We are never completely sure why she is being overlooked but there are hints in the text. But she has a best friend, Daniel, who is complicit in helping Iris reach for a very particular goal and dream. And the play gives us a good look at how friendship works here…Iris is often an instigator while Daniel in a bit reticent to try some of the things that Iris suggests…but in the end they support each other! Aas the play progresses, you may find a number of other candidates for your forgotten girl.

Estelle Brown (left), Sherrick Robinson and Alexandria King in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And they are supported and loved by their family. Iris has very supportive parents in Daddy and Mama and Daniel’s grandmother, Suga, is a very solid role model and supportive adult as well. There are just three adult actors in the play: Daddy is played by Sherrick Robinson, who has a hard time being the stern father even when something serious is happening; Mama as played by Alexandra King, something of a take charge mom who instantly meets with the principal when she realize Iris is being left out of school activities (Iris obviously gets her spunk from Mama); and Cynthia Cobb as Suga, the sweet grandma with a superstitious streak and a secret to tell before the play comes to an end.

Cynthia Cobb and Amirah Muhammad (front) and Jessimia Page (back) in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

At the urging of Iris, Iris and Daniel enter a woods near their homes during a snow storm, against the instructions of the adults in their lives. And while making snow angels in the fresh snow, they discover the gravestone of Avery, who died at the age of 12. Iris becomes fixated with Avery and this results in a number of eerie events…apparent nightmares, nocturnal visions, and her window mysteriously being opened in the middle of the night. Things get stranger and stranger until Avery makes herself known to Iris during one of these late night visits.

Daniel and Iris are assigned a class project to research and report on a bit of local history, and they discover that Avery’s grave is part of an abandoned segregated grave yard. So other than writing and presenting their report, they also try to start a school class project to help restore and beautify the grave yard. And that’s when we get to know two of their classmates, Heather and Sara. They represent a different point of view on small town contemporary life and how it has evolved from local history. One bit of action to watch is how the relationship of Heather and Sara shifts during the play. There is an interesting transition there.

Fiona Fouliard (left), Sherrick Robinson (center), Jessimia Page and Noeloni-Aniya Heard in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Director Jon Royal has given us a very fluid play here. The action never stops even when the actors aren’t speaking. And Royal makes ultimate use of the oval stage as action moves from one section to the next, speakers move upstage or down as the ensemble moves/removes stage set devices around them, and yes they move in a very specific and ghost like choreography through out. At times it was a struggle for me to know where to focus my attention, but that helps build some of the tension and anxiousness that the story holds for us.

For me, this was the most engaging and satisfying production that I have experienced at First Stage. The characters are clear and interesting individuals and the story draws contemporary life accurately, and shows how it is a result of our history, even when we don’t see that anymore. It deserves a much wider audience than the capacity at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

First Stage productions always work with two casts. So I haven’t gone into discussion of individual youth actors…you may see the Snow Cast while I saw the Angel Cast.

The Forgotten Girl runs through November 12, 2023 and you can get more info or order tickets here. The Forgotten Girl is recommended for children ages 10 – 12, teens, and adults. And there is a lot here for adults!

Extra Credit reading! The Playbill! and an Enrichment Guide!

First Stage’s Contribution to World Premiere Wisconsin: The Gracious Sisters

The Gracious Sisters is written by Alice Austen and described as a free adaptation of The Eumenides by Aeschylus. And I can’t believe I spelled both of those Greek names correctly the first time without looking them up (thank you Corliss Phillabaum). And the Gracious Sisters is part of the World Premiere Wisconsin event playing across state stages this spring.

Now, back to that free adaptation note. Yes, the story for the most part is true to Aeschylus and there are gods and mortals and murder and mayhem and all of the requisite attributes of a Greek Tragedy. And at first, great I don’t have to worry about ‘spoiler alerts’ because the original story resides pretty much in the public domain. From Aeschylus through Rick Riordan, the Greeks are alive and well. But that free adaptation: how do I work the modern elements into my review without spoiling something. Well fortunately First Stage beat me to it with their very clear and concise story synopsis. So let me quote!

When archaeological intern Alice falls down an ancient Greek rabbit hole, she discovers the aftermath of a violent murder, with the goddesses of vengeance, or “Furies,” chasing down the accused to exact bloody retribution. Athena, the goddess of wisdom (and war), persuades the Furies that the accused should have a fair trial before a jury. When the jury is divided in a split decision, all must come to terms with the balance of a desire for vengeance, and the need for grace.

Angel Rivera, Silver Anderson, Hazel Dye, and Rose Campbell in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So we take a classic story and bring it forward to the 21st Century for all of us 13 and older to enjoy…with ancient plot and contemporary subtext. Subtext!! Where did I hear that before?

Well, when Alice meets Clytemnestra, she refers to her as a ghost…which appalls Clytemnestra who then screams SPIRIT because “Spirit has subtext”. And subtext indeed but it isn’t exclusive to our wronged ghost, but subtext rules the play, the characters, and the scenes. Subtext links us to the ancient Greeks!

Silver Anderson, Hazel Dye, Rose Campbell, Angel Rivera, and Zachary Nowacek in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Angel Rivera plays our Alice in wonderland, who at first is confused by her new found surroundings, but quickly comes to grip with the characters and situations as she brings her knowledge of Greek mythology to bear…and she puts some of the Greek characters, both mortal and divine, ill at ease by her knowledge of their pasts and futures. Rivera is enchanting here and emphatically plays a character beyond their years. And Alice, by happenstance and misunderstanding, bonds with the Furies who are bedeviling Orestes near to death…and Rivera clearly enjoys the character’s swing from outsider to instigator!

Angel Rivera, John Eash-Scott in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And the Furies are played to the hilt…swirling sprites, threatening goblins, glib orators, determined vigilantes, and a right nice Greek Chorus. Out Furies are Silver Anderson as Tisiphone, Rose Campbell as Alecto, and Hazel Dye as Megaera. These young actors worked tightly as a troupe through their hauntings and dances. The choreography for three free spirits working in unison can get pretty tricky at times. And they make a wonderful chorus and the music here is just right and they bring it to our ears with style (and amazing voices)!

Cast in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And we have two major gods here. Zachary Nowacek brings us a regal and imperial Apollo, sure of his power and of his place in the Greek pantheon. And Terynn Erby-Walker as Athena, reigns over Athens with a certain combination of regal pomp and grace. And she reigned over the final scenes as a statue in her temple as turmoil was breaking out all around her feet. Quite an amazing ability to remain still. But then Erby-Walker came to life and ruled over the fate of Orestes with a clear certainty and vigor. And earlier in the play Erby-Walker also gave us the messenger god, Hermes, with just the right bit of impishness and devotion.

But other than Alice, you could picture these other characters as supporting roles because our central theme is Orestes murder of his mother Clytemnestra. Both mortals, they are essentially play things of the gods but still feel their own agency. Orestes is played by John Eash-Scott, who gives us the full gamut from fearful supplicant to boastful antagonist in just the right amounts and at just the right times. And the ghost, yikes, the spirit of Clytemnestra is Elena Marking. Marking gives us all of the anguish of an unsettled spirit and the bitterness of a wronged spouse and mother. And her hauntings of the periphery provides the right amount of spooky presence until Marking brings Clytemnestra to life in the spoken and ensemble bits.

Terynn Erby-Walker, Hazel Dye, Rose Campbell, Silver Anderson, and Angel Rivera in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And Reiley Fitzsimmons plays two roles…separate…but…related: Pythia, an oracle to Apollo, and Esme, the court reporter during the trial, after her role of oracle has ended. Both characters are mortals and bring some comic relief to the proceedings. And Fitzsimmons last part, as the court reporter, not only brings a bit of humor but feels the closet to a contemporary of the 21st Century other than Alice.

And Austen’s text brings out a few questions about the gods…how did they wield all of that power while being so capricious and contrary in their actions? That might keep me up at night.

The Gracious Sisters is a presentation of The Young Company and it is amazing how effectively they present some pretty serious adult themes and plays. And I think the Gracious Sisters is a fine fine example of that! And director Matt Daniels really brought out superb acting from these young people…in roles that may not be that familiar to them.

One bit of a spoiler maybe, but something I wouldn’t want to miss. Get there a few minutes early…the cast does a silent walk through the stage in costume and character…and you will get a feel for the characters that you are about to meet at curtain!

The Gracious Sisters continues through May 21, 2023 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Theater and is recommended for families with children 13 and older.

Some extra credit reading: The Playbill!