First Stage Young Company acts like veterans in staging Henry V

There are thousands of professional actors who spend a lifetime studying the intricacies and complexity of performing Shakespeare.

It’s hard to do and very hard to do well, which makes all the more remarkable the staging of “” by the young company at First Stage.

A dozen or so kids, high schoolers, take on a history play written over 400 years ago and did it much more than justice.

Henry is the final play in a three-part series that follows Prince Henry from a young man to a king who leads England to a victory over France in a battle during the hundred years war.

The most difficult part of doing Shakespeare is learning how to handle the language. Sophisticated and experienced actors understand that the playwright used language that told actors how to say each line. There is a rhythm and a well defined flow to the language. Careful reading of the text explains the emphasis and beat of each line.

Accomplished productions leave little room for the lengthy dramatic pause, the wildly shifting emotional moments or forcing a character on the audience.

Shakespeare takes discipline, experienced discipline and that only adds to the continued surprise at the way these young actors handle the most difficult task in the world of theater. Under the creative and amusing direction of Matt Daniels, this is a show that reinforces the faith that the future of the  Milwaukee world of theater is in good hands.

Given the age and experience of this cast of some of the actors are better with the text than others and some occasionally take liberties that made me wince.

But the overwhelming work was riveting and full of the kind of lusty humor and threatening danger than Shakespeare intended.

Leading the parade was Megan Wason who acted the part of the Chorus. It’s a single character chorus and she acts as the narrator, setting the scene as Shakespeare thought of this as a play within a play.  She was clear and without her explanations this play would have been much more difficult to follow. She was funny and serious and managed a difficult task with colorful aplomb.

There was a series of standout performances in this show, both large and small moments.

Jennie Babisch, forever one of my favorite Young Company actors, is in love with Shakespeare and it shows in her performance. She probably had the best and most facile ease with the text as both the Archbishop of Canterbury and as the colorful Pistol, the soldier of swagger with the heart of a cowardly lion. Pistol was an aide de camp to the recently dead Falstaff and he has many of the attributes of his noted former boss.

Elliott Brotherhood plays Henry and manages to capture both the intensity and the underlying uncertainty of the king. On rare occasion he lost touch with the rhythm of the text but he is such a commanding presence of the stage that you could forgive him.

Mr. Daniels, who has lengthy experience with Shakespeare and is the Director of the Young Company, understands as well as anyone that a successful production is made up of a series of small moments.

An example was during the sword fight between Pistol and Nym (Mary Jensik), each armed with wooden posts. The third member of this battle was Bardolph (Sylvie Arnold). Each time she lifted or pointed her piece of wood in encouragement, the weapon mysteriously shook as if she had a palsy of sorts. The movement was a surprise to her and she proved to be a wonderful physical actor with her amazement at this phenomenon.

One of the hallmarks of the actors in this cast always act. Even though they are young, there is no gazing into the audience to see parents or family members or friends.

A perfect example, and I watched her carefully, was Kate Ketelhohn, a first year Young Company m ember, who played Gloucester.  It was a small part, but she never broke character. She was always attentive to her king, always engaged in the action. It’s one of the hardest things for an actor to learn and was a perfect example of disciplined acting.

The YOung Company a First Stage has built an outstanding reputation for consistently great performances. I humbly offer the suggestion that First Stage consider putting these Young Company plays in their main season at the Todd Wehr theater and moving them out of their home at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

Production credits:  Director, Matt Daniels; Scenic Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Costume Designer, Caitlyn De Araujo; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Sound Designer, Matt Whitmore; French Coach, Natalia DeLaat; Dialect Coaches, Matt Daniels, John Maclay; Stage Manager, Julia Xiong; Assistant Stage Manager, Robert Torres.


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