Written by Basil Twist, Joey Arias, and Julie Atlas Muz
Directed and Designed by Basil Twist
Off Off Broadway, Musical/Puppetry
Extended through 11.7.15
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street
by Zahra Sadjadi on 10.12.15
Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz in Sisters' Follies. Photo by Richard Termine.
BOTTOM LINE: Inspired by the 100th anniversary of an avant-garde playhouse, Sisters' Follies is a magical production that conjures various theatrical elements and alchemizes them into an experience of pure delight.
It is seldom that I have sat in the audience while my lower jaw has spent most of its time separated from its upper half, either dropped in a bewildered smile or in service of long stretches of laughter. That was about the configuration of my face for much of Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, a theatrical spectacular that evokes the tradition of the elaborate theatrical revues for which it was named. To mark the centennial of the Abrons Arts Center Playhouse (originally constructed as the Neighborhood Playhouse), the performing and visual arts program of the Henry Street Settlement, Sisters’ Follies is a work that was commissioned from 2015 MacArthur Fellow and puppet artist extraordinaire Basil Twist. Although originally envisioned as a comprehensive celebration of the 100 years of diverse and innovative work that the venue has supported, the production evolved into an homage primarily focused on the groundbreaking Lewisohn sisters, socially conscious and artistically adventurous copper heiresses who founded the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915. Twist, along with performers Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz, collaborated to create something quite otherworldly with elements of camp, burlesque, drag, and vaudeville mixed with clever dialogue, catchy tunes, puppetry, projections, and above all, parody.
Sisters’ Follies, reinforcing the notion that all theaters are somewhat haunted, transforms the Abrons Arts Center into a fun-house, replete with the spectral Lewisohn sisters either flitting about onstage or animating the proscenium with their projected visages (courtesy of the enchanting projection design by Daniel Brodie and Gabriel Aronson). From the wondrous puppets by Twist to the bedazzling sets, the rousing music by Wayne Barker, lighting by Ayumi Poe Saegusa, costumes by Machine Dazzle, and sound design from Takaaki Ando, every ingredient of this rich production enlivens the storytelling and contributes to what makes this “spooktacular” kinda spectacular.
At the mercy of Alice (Arias) and Irene (Muz) who have repossessed their beloved 100-year-old playhouse, we get to reminisce about some of the more seminal but perhaps obscure productions based on multicultural, exotic worlds as yet unfamiliar to the mainstream at the turn of the twentieth century. While those choices may well have been brave, well-intentioned, and ahead of their time, here those efforts as well as the sisters’ intention to perform in many of their own productions become fodder for the drama, the melodrama, and the incredible musical vignettes. Make no mistake, Sisters’ Follies is sincere in its desire to honor the Lewisohn sisters; nevertheless, a great deal of the fun comes during the moments of poking fun at their work.
At the heart of this humor is the relationship between the older and more established Alice (as portrayed by preternatural cult performance artist Joey Arias) and younger, chronically overshadowed Irene (played by the comical burlesque performer/actress Julie Atlas Muz). The performances by Arias and Muz yield all things over-the-top and diva-esque. Indeed, relationships and collaborations are a thematic current animating the sisters’ follies and while Twist’s puppets are magical and while all the elements of the production are astonishingly fantastical, ultimately these ingredients are the showcase for Arias and Muz who give their characters such hilarious life it seems appropriate that they won’t stay dead.
(Sisters’ Follies plays at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, through November 7, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 5. Tickets are $55-$65 and are available at web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/949480 or by calling 866-811-4111. For more information visit abronsartscenter.org.)