"Shakespeare Stealer" introduces Will's talent to wee ones
"So do you know who Shakespeare is?" I asked my six-year-old niece, Hannah, as we ran to the Todd Wehr Theater to catch First Stage Children's Theater's production of "The Shakespeare Stealer."
"No," she replied. "Uh-oh - we're in trouble," I thought. My worries were allayed, however as we were seated in the intimate 500-seat theater and Robert Armin delivered a traditional Shakespearean introduction, welcoming the audience to the show. Joe Foust's performance of Armin, one of Shakespeare's resident actors at The Globe, was tremendous. He lent complexity to an otherwise two-dimensional character, switching from a contemplative soliloquy from Hamlet to gently mentoring at-risk apprentice actors in the art of swordplay.
John Maclay's fight choreography made the production rise above and beyond your stereotypical theatrical sword fighting. As a historical fencer, I paid close attention to the terms and moves used by the actors, and appreciated their authenticity.
The caliber of acting in First Stage's productions never ceases to impress me. I recognized John Gleason Teske from Theatre X's production of "King Ubu" and his portrayal of Nick, a brilliant but troubled young actor, was first class. He compensated for what Ted Warren, who played the main character, Widge, sometimes lacked in accent or delivery of his lines. Teske compelled viewers to both sympathize with and yet despise him as he terrorized his fellow apprentices. I also enjoyed seeing Patrick Lawlor of In Tandem's "What the Night is For." Once again, he effectively infused color and energy into his characters to create many memorable moments throughout the show.
Costume Designer Rick Rasmussen went all out in crafting convincingly authentic Shakespearean garb, from Simon Bass's (James Fletcher) luxurious tapestry robe down to Armin's gauntlets. When Laura Gray entered, stunningly outfitted as Queen Elizabeth, Hannah gasped and whispered, "How did she get so beautiful?".
Dialect coach Tyne Turner's work really paid off, as illustrated by Joe Widen's portrayal of Widge's sidekick, Sander. His 17th century English accent never quit, unlike some of the other actors, whose dialects ranged from what seemed like Scottish to an almost East Coast sound.
The sets in First Stage shows truly maximize the utility of such a small performance space. Scenic designer Sarah L. Hunt-Frank created moving platforms that transformed a rustic domestic interior into a traveling Shakespearean stage. Lighting designer Jason Fassl used simple variations of color and movement to create the illusion of a thatched roof ablaze.
First Stage Children's Theater's The Shakespeare Stealer is a great way to give first-timers a taste of Shakespeare's works. The company makes his 400-year old words come alive onstage, which draws kids - and adults - in . . .hook, line and sinker. As Armin delivered the closing speech, thanking the audience for their kind indulgences, viewers were left wanting more. As we took our leave (alright, enough Shakespearean English), I promised Hannah that, maybe when she was older, we could go see a Shakespeare play at the American Players Theater in Spring Green sometime. She seemed to be really excited about that. Thank you, First Stage, for helping to cultivate the next generation of Shakespeare aficionados.
"The Shakespeare Stealer" runs through November 13th. For tickets, call (414) 273-7206.
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