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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: No lie, comedy ‘First Things First’ lives on lies in Oconto

Critic At Large

The Machickanee Players

Set for The Machickanee Players’ production of “First Things First.” (Warren Gerds)


Over the phone, Sarah begs off going to a party because she has badly sprained an ankle. After she hangs up, Sarah has a spring in her step as walks across the room. She lied!

That lie in “First Things First” is the first drop in a Niagara Falls of lies to follow.

In a way, this play presented by The Machickanee Players is amazing. It weaves an incredible web of endless lies with all the characters joining in. Playwright Derek Benfield didn’t know when to quit, or want to.

“First Things First” is from the madcap genre of British farce (Benfield was British), though director Monty Witt and his game cast do not play it with accents – or need to.

One takeaway of the production is it’s all for fun and fun for all. The thing is quite silly.

The plot is a maze. There’s even a joke about that along the way. Trying to figure out which way is up among their haystack of lies, one guy says to his buddy, “Come on, old man, keep with the plot.”

The story is something like this. Sarah (Mariah Engeldinger) has lied at the start because her husband of six months, Pete (Chris Bellow), is too eager to have her go to the party by herself. Pete never has warmed the heart of his mother-in-law, a surgeon, Margot (Tammie McCarthy), who has come over to “treat” Sarah’s fake injured ankle. Pete has lied because he will be meeting his buddy, George (Timothy Merritt), who has something personal to tell.

After a goodly amount of time and talking around the topic, George tells Pete that his first wife, who both believe fell off a mountain in Tibet, is still alive… and by the way, that wife, Jessica (Jenny Warpehoski-Fulcher), is on her way over to see Pete. So Pete has two wives, and he just cannot bring himself to tell either about the other. And then, after a great deal of goodly time later, there is a Frenchman, Alan (Chris Weis), who is a whole other story.

Believe it or not, this synopsis is barely the start of all the messin’ around that takes place. Hats off to the players, who plug along and milk all the pauses and raised eyebrows and sneaky glances and struggles to get the stories/lies straight and all the rascally stuff that makes up a farce.

That director Monty Witt is a professional magician, for which timing is everything, feels like it carries through in the steady effort of the cast. The play may be hair-brained, but it’s supposed to be as a heavy dose of comic relief.

A few sample scenes catch the flavor:

The mother calls her daughter an innocent. “You are such a stranger to deception,” the mother says, validating her daughter’s ticket to lying.

And George has a great one for Pete – and any guy with two wives (!): “If given the choice, which one would you choose?” It turns out Pete doesn’t get the choice.

The set is notable. The theater is among the many with box-like performance spaces. For “First Things First,” all the angles are not 90 degrees. Two walls are angled. That is somewhat out of necessity to create a hallway, but the design gives this production a look of its own.


Creative: Playwright Derek Benfield; director – Monty Witt; set design – Chris Weis; lights/sound – Alex Reed; set builders – Russ Johnson, Chris Weis, Jenny Warpehoski-Fulcher


Sarah – Mariah Engeldinger

Pete – Chris Bellow

Margot – Tammie McCarthy

George – Timothy Merritt

Jessica – Jenny Warpehoski-Fulcher

Alan – Chris Weis

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Feb. 21, 6 p.m. Feb. 22 (dinner) and 1:30 p.m. Feb. 23 (dessert)



NEXT: “The Diary of Ann Frank” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, May 8-10, 15-17.

Park Avenue Playhouse. (Warren Gerds)

THE VENUE: Park Avenue Playhouse is located at 408 Park Ave. in Oconto. According to, the building was originally St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, built in 1869. It is of Greek revival architecture style. According to, the building became St. Mark’s Guild Hall when a stone church was built on the corner to the south in 1900. The stone building was razed in the 1990s. The wood-frame building was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1985. The hall building was purchased by Jim Nerenhausen of Neroco Engineering and Manufacturing of Oconto and gifted to the Machickanee Players. The interior includes a raised stage, a wooden floor seating area with tables for eight and a capacity of around 80. On the edges of the hall are a control room, box office, coat room, concessions window and doorway to rest rooms. The south wall includes photographs of past productions. The 12-foot-high Roman-arch windows that perhaps once held stained glass, are decoratively covered.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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