By Mary Boyle
When thinking of Shakespeare's commonly produced plays, The Winter's Tale is not among them—not because it isn't good, mind you, but because it is very difficult to get right. Considered one of the "problem plays," this story is not quite a drama, romance, or comedy, but all three. Fortunately, Milwaukee's First Stage Young Company, a group of high school-aged students who receive college-level training and produce two plays each season at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, was up to the task.
Directed by Milwaukee's own Marcella Kearns, The Winter's Tale is the story of two kings, Leontes (Mathilde Prosen-Oldani), King of Sicily, and Polixenes (Kathleen Lepianka), King of Bohemia, who have been friends since infancy. After Leontes' queen, Hermione (Morgan McKinnis), is able to convince Polixenes to extend his visit to their kingdom, Leontes is suddenly certain that his wife is not only having an affair with Polixenes, but that the child she is carrying belongs to Polixenes, as well. Leontes orders his cup bearer, Camillo (Kyra Mathias), to poison his friend, but Camillo warns Polixenes, instead, and they flee together. Assured that his queen, best friend, and most trusted servant were all in league against him to take his crown, Leontes publicly accuses Hermione of adultery and banishes her to prison, barring her from seeing their young son, Prince Mamillius (Emily Harris), who promptly falls ill. To convince his servants, who refuse to believe that Hermione is guilty, Leontes sends two of his lords to the Oracle at Delphos to assure all that even the god Apollo is on his side.
The shock of her betrayal causes Hermione to give birth early to a daughter. Paulina (Molly Boyle), a respected servant and physician in the court, confronts Leontes, begging him to look at his newborn daughter and see that she is, indeed, his, but Leontes orders the baby to be burned. Lord Antigonus (Selma Rivera), Paulina's husband, intervenes and Leontes relents, but instead orders Antigonus to take the baby outside of their kingdom and leave it in the wild to fate. While Antigonus and the baby sail away on a ship, Hermione is forced to stand trial, where she learns the fate of her newborn. Proclaiming her innocence, Hermione leaves her fate to Apollo. The proclamation from the Oracle is read, pronouncing Hermoine, Polixenes, and Camillo innocent, the baby legitimate, and Leontes a jealous tyrant. Moreover, the Oracle predicts that the kingdom will remain heir-less until the lost child is found. Refusing to believe he was wrong, Leontes tears up the proclamation; immediately, a servant runs in to announce that Mamillius is dead, causing the queen to faint. Leontes realizes, too late, that he was wrong and begs Apollo for forgiveness, only to suffer the fury of Paulina, who informs him that his beloved and innocent queen is dead. Meanwhile, Antigonus and the baby arrive on the banks of Bohemia in a storm, where Antigonus is attacked by a bear while the ship goes down in the sea. The baby, however, is discovered by an old shepherd (Gabriela Bastardo) and his son (Molly McVey), who take her up and raise her as their own.
Fast-forward sixteen years later: Leontes continues to weep daily on the grave of his queen and son and Camillo remains in Bohemia in service to Polixenes. The baby, who was named Perdita (Kate Ketelhohn), has grown into a rare beauty who attracts the attention of Polixenes' son, Prince Florizel (Costello Mylott), but the King refuses to allow his son to wed a mere shepherdess, no matter how beautiful she is or how in love they are, and threatens Perdita with death should she come near the Prince. Willing to renounce his inheritance for love, Florizel plans to flee the country with Perdita, but Camillo sees his chance to help the young prince, reunite the two kings, and return to his homeland with one brilliant plan. Fearing the wrath of King Polixenes, the shepherd and his son, with the help of a "courtier" named Autolycus (Emily Harris), decide to go to the King and tell him the secrets of Perdita's origin to avoid sharing her fate. Does Florizel get the girl? Will the Kingdom of Sicily be restored? I'm afraid you'll have to watch and see.
Several of the actors hail from Ozaukee, including Morgan McKinnis and Kathleen Lepianka from Grafton, Kate Ketelhohn from Cedarburg, and Molly Boyle from Port Washington. Boyle, Ketelhohn, and Lepianka were cast together two seasons ago in the YC performance of Henry V; last season, Boyle and Lepianka performed in the World Premiere of Girls in the Boat, also directed by Kearns, and McKinnis, Boyle, and Ketelhohn were cast together in another of Shakespeare's works, As You Like It. Ketelhohn, Boyle, and McKinnis also had the honor of competing with Young Company's Team Yorick at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this past October, where the team brought home second place in Duo/Trio scenes, third place in Monologues, first place in Ensemble Scene, and first place overall in their division.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Young Company is one of the best-kept theatre secrets in Milwaukee. I have yet to see a YC show where these young performers don't blow me away; the acting is professional-quality for an incredibly reasonable price, at just $14 per ticket. With a sparse set, simple white costumes and hardly any props, this group of 14 high school students (including Trevor Schmitt-Ernst and Gwynyth Martin) bring this complex tale—first an intense emotional drama that becomes, unbelievably, a comedy—to life on the stage. With each year in the Company, the actors show marked improvement; Mathilde Prosen-Oldani and Emily Harris, who are Seniors, deliver masterful performances. Best for audiences ages 13 and up, there are limited chances to see this rare production; don't miss yours.
THE WINTER'S TALE runs through Sunday, December 15th at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut St. in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets are $14 and available online at www.firststage.org, through the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961, or at the door prior to the performance. Performance run-time is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 13+.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves nearly 2,000 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education and the arts for its Next Steps program for students on the autism spectrum (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Milwaukee Arts Partners and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). www.firststage.org.