Review: Alice Austen’s World Premiere Brings Ancient Greece to Milwaukee in The Gracious Sisters

Wisconsin is in a whirl of new plays and musicals this spring, thanks to a statewide effort called World Premiere Wisconsin. Milwaukee’s First Stage, one of the nation’s leading children’s theaters, contributes to this effort with the world premiere of The Gracious Sisters by playwright Alice Austen. The production, staged by the company’s high school group of actors, opened in early May and continues through May 21.

The Gracious Sisters takes audiences way back in time—to ancient Greece, in fact. A young, modern-day archeological student named Alice (a là Alice in Wonderland) falls down a rabbit hole, of sorts, to wind up in an ancient world of gods, furies and mortals. In the process, she faces off with a number of well-known gods from Greek mythology, such as Hermes, Apollo and Athena.

One of the show’s main characters is a man named Orestes (John Eash-Scott), who freely admits to having killed his mother Clytemnestra at the request of the gods. Austen’s script is a loose adaptation of The Eumenides by Aeschylus.

The play is structured somewhat as a courtroom drama as Orestes is put on trial for his actions. As the contemporary Alice (Angel Rivera) observes all this, she also reveals what she knows about the situation (which is a lot). She is considered to be an oracle by the astonished gods, furies and so forth.

Apollo (Zachary Nowacek) confronts the three furies under the watchful eye of Alice, a modern-day archeologist (Angel Rivera) in The Gracious Sisters. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

In another segment of the play, the spirit of Clytemnestra (Elena Marking) pops out unexpectedly from hidden corners of the set. She literally shrieks about her misfortune (often startling audience members in the process). Her loud appearances add a comic touch to an otherwise serious play.

One of the show’s highlights is the three furies, who are clad in toga-type outfits and wear traditional-looking Greek masks (by costume designer Lyndsey Kuhlmann). The furies sing, chant, and sway to the sound of musical instruments during several scenes, while Alice attempts to rally them to her side. Kudos to Silver Anderson, Rose Campbell and Hazel Dye for their dramatic and rhythmic debut as the furies, under the direction of Young Company artistic director Matt Daniels.

It’s also refreshing that not ALL of the Greek characters are wearing masks, which would hinder some of their emotional expressions.

Playwright Alice Austen is no stranger to First Stage audiences, as her world premiere of Girls in the Boat opened here in 2018. Austen, who is also a lawyer, has also been seen by Chicago audiences. Notably, her work has been seen at Goodman Theatre (La Musica, Ninth Man Out) and Steppenwolf Theatre (Next Stop and an award-winning adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm).

The Gracious Sisters is filled with dramatic tension throughout, as a jury is eventually assembled to determine Orestes’ fate. Sharing their thoughts about the case are the Greek gods Apollo (Zachary Nowacek), Hermes and Athena (both played by Terynn Erby-Walker). Another character, Pythia, is a mortal who serves as Apollo’s oracle (Reiley Fitzsimmons).


An Exceptional Cast of Young Actors, Who are Learning the Ancient Origins of Drama

All of the young players are exceptional in creating their distinct characters. But audience members who may not recall their Greek mythology may want to prep beforehand by reading a graphic depiction of “Agamemnon and the Murder of Clytemnestra” in the show’s audience guide. The guide outlines the chain of events leading up to Clytemnestra’s demise, as well as the jealousies, love interests, squabbles, acts of vengeance and even more deaths that comprise this famous myth.

The production is supported by a minimal but effective set by Madelyn Yee. A pair of permanent Greek pillars stand tall, while smaller sections of fallen pillars are moved around the round stage as necessary. The audience seating goes around three sides of the thrust stage in an intimate setting. Marion Frank provides adequate lighting effects, and Derek Buckles monitors the sound design.

The Gracious Sisters plays through May 21 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St., which is also First Stage’s administrative home. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. The show is designed for adults and children ages +13. Mask-wearing is not required at this time. For tickets, contact the general number, 414-267-2929, the box office (414-267-2961, or go to firststage.org.

World Premiere Wisconsin continues at other theaters through the end of June.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.