Asked to design a production to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Lower East Side theater now known as the Abrons Art Center, puppeteer and director Basil Twist has created a spectacle that delivers many pleasures and surprises. Watching Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, one feels a giddy, childlike sense of wonder and awe—but without the terror that an actual child might experience at a play that features two extremely spooky and persuasive ghosts. What’s astonishing about the show, cowritten by Twist and the play’s stars, Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz, is not the drama itself—a series of comic sketches (very) loosely patterned after plays performed at the theater during the early years of the twentieth century—but the ingenious use of live actors, costumes, sets, puppets, music, dance, and video projection.
The specters haunting the stage are those of Alice and Irene Lewisohn, wealthy New York philanthropists, producers, and actresses who, in 1915, established the Neighborhood Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement, in the building where the current theater now stands. When we first meet the sisters, they are quite literally suspended between two worlds, in this case between the stage and the flyspace high above it. Twist—whose works include puppet shows such as Symphonie Fantastique, Dogugaeshi and Rite of Spring, who has contributed to the Broadway production of The Addams Family and the film of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and who was recently awarded a MacArthur grant—has here devised two gravity-defying human marionettes, trussed up in harnesses and yanked about by mostly invisible strings.
The plot, such as it is, posits a sibling rivalry between Alice (Arias)—the more aggressive and ambitious of the sisters—and Irene (Muz), who feels that her talents as a dancer are being overshadowed by her sister’s powerful presence and her penchant for hogging the limelight. Irene’s anxieties are more than justified by the first “performance” we witness, a version of Jepthah’s Daughter, which marked the opening of the Neighborhood Playhouse in February 1915. In its current iteration, Alice nearly edges her sister off the stage; she is burned at the stake to fulfill the foolhardy vow that their father, the Old Testament judge (played by the scantily dressed and almost comically hunky Jonothon Lyons) has made to God. Irene’s fears of being underappreciated are intensified when Alice stars in the Egyptian-themed The Queen’s Enemies, and later when Irene appears in a dance production, Kairn of Kordiwen, whose title her sister can’t be bothered to learn or pronounce correctly. The competition continues as both sisters don beards to play Walt Whitman in Salut au Monde, a dramatic adaptation of his poetry, and The Little Clay Cart, a show with a Southeast Asian motif. The jokes are amusing enough, and the actors are appealing, but what’s most exciting are the stage effects: the masks and the billowing flames (made of red cloth) in Jephthah’s Daughter, the puppet fish leaping out of the “waters” of the Nile in The Queen’s Enemies, the boat on which the two Walt Whitmans navigate the shark-infested sea, the camel and the cobra enjoying Alice’s performance of “Midnight at the Oasis.”
Wearing diaphanous gowns trailed by streaming ribbons of cloth and skillfully lit in ways that make it impossible to judge how tall they are or where their bodies begin and end, the ghost-siblings swoop and glide through the air against a black background. Alternately bickering and declaring their love, collaborating and competing, Alice and Irene together suggest two campy, vaudevillian Peter Pans.
The production includes a great deal of physical comedy, pratfalls, fights, and manic dance routines, one of which Muz, a performance artist and choreographer whose career has lately focused on burlesque, performs almost entirely nude. The fact that Alice is played by the gifted Arias not only intensifies the general oddness and hilarity of the piece but provides an additional level of nuance and complexity. Like the best drag performers (Charles Ludlam and Justin Vivian Bond, among others) Arias doesn’t so much impersonate or mimic femininity but rather suggests a more fluid and imaginative notion of gender: the possibility of a culture in which conventional ideas of what it means to be male or female are not only questioned but subverted.
In the program notes for Sisters’, Twist writes, “I’ve been inspired by this Playhouse for many years. It’s a REAL theater and somehow that seems so rare….A space like this one with a flyspace, proscenium, orchestra pit and balcony inspires an artist to really use it.” In fact Twist has made extraordinary use of the entire area: the flyspace through which the actors soar; the orchestra pit in which a full orchestra plays original music and standards such as “Midnight at the Oasis”; the backdrop, on which old photos of the neighborhood and the theater materialize at intervals; and even the proscenium arch, on which films of the sisters’ faces are projected, so that the masks of comedy and tragedy appear to be continuing the conversations and disputes that the actors have begun on stage.
Ultimately, the competition between the sisters escalates into sibling aerial war. They threaten and swoop at one another, attack each other with weapons (a hatchet, an anvil, a bomb) that are essentially puppets at the end of poles that the black-clad puppeteers manipulate from below. There are flashes of electricity, lightning, an explosion, and the sisters’ heads appear to separate from their bodies.
Near the end of the show, Arias and Muz appear on stage, without their Alice and Irene wigs and wearing only their underwear and the harnesses in which they’ve been gliding above the stage. They thank the cast and crew, the staff of the theater, and Basil Twist, and they suggest the possibility that—as Twist remarks in the program notes—the ghosts of the Lewisohn sisters really do haunt the playhouse. The point of our seeing the actors out of character and stripped of their costumes is, it would seem, to demystify what we’ve been watching, to reduce the illusion of flight by revealing the mechanism that has enabled it, to explain the magician’s tricks. And yet this brief, nervy moment in which “reality” is allowed to intrude only serves to increase the beauty and poetry of the sequence that follows. It’s as if Twist is suggesting that, contrary to what we’ve always been told, it makes no difference if we know how the magician does what he does. We’ll still feel the same astonishment when the rabbit emerges from his top hat.
The final section of Sisters’ features Twist’s take on Ansky’s The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds, which debuted at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1926 and was one of its most successful, popular, and elaborate productions. Among crooked tombstones that evoke the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Leah (Arias), dressed in a white gown and long black braids, wanders mournfully through the graveyard, seeking communion with her beloved Chanon, played with typically frenetic energy by Muz. As the lovers embrace, a monstrous dybbuk or golem—in any case, an otherworldly creature—appears behind them, ghost-white, growing alarmingly larger and larger until it becomes gigantic and occupies much of the stage.
The moment is at once aesthetically satisfying and emotionally affecting, reminding us of the vision and the accomplishment of the Lewisohn sisters, of the neighborhood’s past, of the immigrants who flocked to plays such as The Dybbuk, of the early residents of the Lower East Side now resting in cemeteries not unlike the one that decorates on stage. It shows what can be done when a talent as formidable as Twist’s is encouraged to consider an important moment in the history of the city, and of the American stage. In celebrating the achievements of one theater, Twist has paid homage to “the theater” and to its enduring power to delight, enchant, and haunt us.
Basil Twist’s Sisters’ Follies is playing at the Abrons Art Center through November 7.