By Mary Boyle
Critics of Shakespeare have often said that As You Like It is a second-rate play in that it is not a good example of the exemplary writing the Bard was capable of. The play, they say, was merely written as a "crowdpleaser." Crowdpleaser is right — over 400 years later, and this romantic comedy still brings in the audiences. Mistaken identities, love at first site, and a thrilling wrestling match — there's something for everyone, and this is especially true when it is being performed by the First Stage Young Company. Possibly Milwaukee's best-kept theatre secret, these high school-aged young performers deliver professional-quality performances for an unbelievably low cost, which means you can bring your whole family to experience As You Like It.
At its heart, As You Like It is a love story primarily focused on Orlando (Molly Boyle) and Rosalind (Sylvie Arnold). The youngest of three brothers, Orlando's eldest brother, Oliver (Magdalyn Rowley-Lange), is charged with seeing his two younger brothers properly raised and educated as gentlemen after their father's death. Jealous of Orlando's goodness, Oliver keeps him home and idle while their middle brother is away at school. While Orlando endures his brothers hate, the country is also in turmoil: Duke Senior (Zora Allison) has been overthrown and banished by his brother, Duke Frederick (Eloise Field), and has fled to the forest of Arden with several of his loyal nobles (Megan Grizzle, Isabel Bastardo). Rosalind, Duke Senior's daughter, was allowed to remain at court with her cousin, Celia (Kayla Salter), as the two are closer than sisters. Orlando decides to try to gain a name for himself by challenging Duke Frederick's wrestler, Charles (Kamani Graham), where Celia and Rosalind happen to meet him. One look, and Rosalind and Orlando fall hopelessly in love.
Duke Frederick's servant, Le Beau (Sam Mulvey), warns Orlando that he has made an enemy of the Duke and, if that weren't bad enough, now his brother is plotting to kill him, so he flees with his faithful old servant, Adam (Lindsay Nelson), to the forest of Arden, where they meet up with Duke Senior, his nobles, and the melancholy Jaques (Mary Jensik). Orlando, in his lovesickness, spends his time covering the forest with poetry written to his true love, Rosalind, and carving her name into the trees. Meanwhile, Duke Frederick has a change of heart and also banishes Rosalind from the court. Her and Celia devise a plan to escape by disguising themselves as a peasant man and his sister: Rosalind becomes "Ganymede" and Celia becomes "Aliena." Along with the Duke's fool, Touchstone (Bradley Nowacek), the three flee to the forest of Arden, where they purchase a cottage from the poor shepherd, Corin (Kate Ketelhohn), and eventually run into Duke Senior, his men, and Orlando, as well as meeting Silvius (Kamani Graham), a shepherd hopelessly in love with the proud shepherdess, Phoebe (Morgan McKinnis), and Audrey (Addy Grace), a naive and innocent shepherdess who Touchstone wishes to wed.
While the story is set in France, Director James Fletcher chose to move the time-period to the 1940's. The costumes, designed by Lyndsey Kuhlmann, are marvelous, and the music between scenes really helps to ground the play in the period. The play is edited for time and content, but none of the language is changed, so audiences will get the true Shakespeare experience. Three of the young performers hail from Oz: Morgan McKinnis of Grafton, Kate Ketelhohn of Cedarburg, and Molly Boyle of Port Washington. All three are Sophomores in high school and in their second year in Young Company, the First Stage Theater Academy’s award-winning training program for advanced high school actors. Molly and Kate were seen in Young Company's production of Henry V last season, Molly was in Girls in the Boat earlier this season, and Morgan is making her YC debut.
Both Morgan and Kate agreed that the best scene of the play is the wrestling match ("It's fun to watch," Kate said), while Kate and Molly both agreed that working with friends was their favorite part of working on the play. Molly, who plays Orlando, is a unique role in that, historically, female roles were played by men in the time Shakespeare's plays were performed, but Molly, as well as several other female cast members, get to do the reverse. "It's actually an extremely freeing outlook to take," said Molly about being cast as Orlando. "Just thinking about what you can and can't do, what people think about you, what you think about other people, and how that informs our physical character so greatly."
Young Company is strongly steeped in Shakespeare: not only do they perform at least one of the Bard's works each season, members compete in the annual Utah Shakespeare Festival each summer and the YC's yearly (and only) fundraiser, the Bardathon, consists of members getting pledges to memorize as many Shakespearean monologues as possible. Nonetheless, they never fail to amaze me with their grasp of these great works and their ability to perform them. Come watch the hijinks of all these lovers in the forest of Arden — you won't be disappointed.
As You Like It runs through March 24th 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 or through the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961. Performance runtime is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 12+.
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 over 2,100 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’sEureka 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).