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!

We’re Jammin’ at Bob Marley’s Three Birds At First Stage

And I hope you like jammin’, too!

The First Stage shows are always crazy fun and feature colorful sets and costuming and enthusiastic talented performers. And Three Little Birds is no different and this is maybe my favorite of the season…but that may be a personal bias…since I love Bob Marley’s music.

The focus of the story by Cedella Marley is a young Jamaican lad named Ziggy. And based on his limited life experience, Ziggy is nervous about the dangers he perceives to exist in the big real world outside his home…so he prefers to remain in his home and focus on the weather (one of his fears is hurricanes) and news on his TV. But his mother and friend, Nansi, eventually coax him out into Jamaica!

Cynthia Cobb and Julius Newman in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And unsurprisingly, Ziggy’s best friend is a bird…a very active and happy bird…Dr. Bird, incredibly brought to life on the stage by Ogunde Tremayne. What a treat to watch Dr. Bird aid Ziggy in breaking out of his fears and enter the world. And Tremayne really brings the character to life through his acting and singing and very fluid dancing. I found myself focusing on Dr. Bird rather than Ziggy whenever Tremayne came on stage.

Ogunde Tremayne and Reece Davis in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But despite the reassurances of Ziggy’s mother, Nansi, and Dr. Bird, there is one danger in Jamaica. A Duppy (a spirit from Jamaican folklore) who preys on young people to steal their hair to add to their own wig…believing that they needed new hair to maintain their strength and vigor. An activity that Duppy has been doing for centuries…and as everyone in the play states any number of times…Ziggy has beautiful perfect hair. And Duppy is stalking him but most frequently is frightened away by all of the activity that accompanies Ziggy and his friends. And Duppy is played by James Carrington, who gets just precisely right, the sly nature of Duppy and the humor written into the script around the Duppy and has just the right of sense of threat when he finally catches Ziggy lost and unaware. Another outstanding performance.

 James Carrington in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But Ziggy and Nansi defeat the Duppy through a clue from Ziggy’s mother and Ziggy’s twist on a trick that Nansi played on him earlier. It is a proper and rewarding comeuppance for Duppy and provides a liberation for Ziggy from his earlier dilemma and malaise.

And of course the story is supported and reinforced throughout by the delightful music of Bob Marley…as the cast sings and dances between the various story vignettes. One of the off stage heroes here is choreographer Sonya Thompson whose dance pieces bring the characters to the fore and move the story along…the choreography just adds to the joy in the music.

And a shout out to Costume Designer Kenann Quander who gave us the feel of Jamaica and colors and textures to please the eye…particularly for the three birds from the title and Duppy! And Director Samantha D. Montgomery utilized the thrust stage of the Todd Wehr Theater to maximum effect, moving the actors and set to the best advantage for her story and the engagement of the audience.

Ogunde Tremayne (front) and Maya O’Day-Biddle and Amirah Muhammad in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As always, First Stage features two casts to provide ample opportunities for their young acting corps. For Three Little Birds, the Jamaican Owls cast includes Reece Davis as Ziggy, Amirah Muhammad as Nansi, and Maya O’Day-Biddle as Tacoomah and the Jamaican Becard cast includes Julius Newman as Ziggy, Amira Harris as Nansi, and Zoe Chambers as Tacoomah. If you want to see who is on stage at any particular performance check the links below.

Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds continues at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater through May 21, 2023. Details and ticket info here: This show is recommended for families with children 3 and older…and has a run time about of 70 minutes that includes a short intermission.

Extra credit readings:

The Playbill with cast and First Stage information!

The Three Little Birds Social Story which explains theater, acting, and the experience at Todd Wehr. A great piece for first time theater goers. And the Enrichment Guide!

Amira Harris (front) and Julius Newman, Cynthia Cobb, and Zoe Chambers in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

PSA: First Stage: 2023/2024 Season Announcement!

After scrolling through the offerings from First Stage for their 2023/2024 season, read all of the way to the end to see how to order tickets and take advantage of early bird savings! So here we go!

Kick off the new season with this world premiere play, based on the books by Green Bay Packer legend Donald Driver.

For adults, teens, and children ages 7-9 & 10-12

Based on the book by India Hill Brown, this ghostly tale examines the connection of past and present, friendship, and forgiveness.

For adults, teens & children ages 10-12

The Herdmans bring big laughs when these raucous siblings are cast in the town’s annual Christmas pageant. Chaos ensues, and the pageant seems doomed. Will they rise to the occasion and discover the true meaning of the season?

For adults, teens, and children ages 5-6, 7-9 & 10-12

Power, honor, and rebellion reign in this second of Shakespeare’s historical epic of royal succession. Presented by First Stage Young Company.

For adults & teens

Follow Percy Jackson’s quest to prevent a war between the Greek gods in this musical adaptation of the New York Times bestseller. Get ready for an action-packed, mythical adventure!.

For adults, teens, and children ages 7-9 & 10-12

Mo Willems’ cherished characters make the leap from page to stage in this rollicking musical adventure.

For adults, teens, and children ages 3-4, 5-6 & 7-9

Don’t be late for an adventure familiar to anyone who survived middle school with this hilarious and heartfelt musical, based on the popular book series.

For adults, teens, and children ages 5-6, 7-9 & 10-12

What happens when one man’s quest to do right is seemingly at odds with the best interests of his community? Can reason and science win out over rumor and fear? 

For adults & teens

Callaway Brown – an unlikely young hero – has been stranded on a desert island, and it’s up to YOU to decide what happens next! 

For adults, teens, and children ages 5-6, 7-9 & 10-12

To lock in the best seats now, choose just two or more plays to create your Family Package. The more plays you choose, the more you will save – up to 30% off regular ticket prices, with free and flexible ticket exchanges and priority seating

Create your own adventure by July 31 for your best choice of seats. We look forward to seeing you at the theater next season! 

If you need any assistance, contact First Stage at (414) 267-2961 or