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Theatre in Review: Sisters' Follies: Between Two Worlds (Abrons Arts Center)

Joey Arias, Julie Atlas Muz. Photo: Richard Termine

Just about every theatre of a certain age claims to have a ghost -- and why not? When you think of all the emotional energy spent in such spaces down the years, it would be more surprising if they weren't somehow haunted. (I even know people who claim to have seen the famous Belasco Theatre ghost.) For its centennial, the Abrons Arts Center is scaring up the ghosts of its founders, the copper heiresses Alice and Irene Lewisohn, a can-do pair who, among other things, founded the Neighborhood Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement, thereby inventing downtown theatre. This lively, eclectic duo earned plenty of attention for productions that ranged from The Dybbuk to several editions of the Grand Street Follies, a series of impudent revues.

Sisters' Follies: Between Two Worlds is a revue of sorts, as well: It resurrects Alice and Irene for a series of sketches and musical numbers that pay tribute to their years of triumph at the Neighborhood Playhouse. With the performers Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz as Alice and Irene, and with a script by them and Basil Twist, the puppeteer, who also directed, the show tries to bridge the downtown theatre scenes of yesterday and today, with often decidedly bizarre results.

We first see Alice and Irene decked out as ectoplasm, floating high above the stage, reminiscing about the theatre's storied past. Then they launch into a version of Irving Berlin's "Sisters," with special material about their shared history. We're barely in our seats and alarm bells are ringing: The new lyrics are notably lame ("Not even a twister/Can come between me and my sister"), and it quickly becomes abundantly clear that neither Arias, a noted drag performer, nor Muz, a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist, is a gifted singer.

If the show can be said to have a through-line it involves the sisters' long-running rivalry: Alice is the house diva, casting herself in glamorous lead roles while Irene does the grunt work, earning walk-ons as downtrodden servants. This occasionally pays off in laughs: In a tribute to an early dramatic hit, Jephthah's Daughter, Alice introduces herself as an innocent young maiden, then glares at the audience, daring them to contradict her. But too much of the dialogue consists of bitchy exchanges that cry out for a touch of wit. This decades-long catfight climaxes in an overextended sequence in which the ghosts of the sisters hover above the stage, trying to do each other in with giant hammers and bundles of dynamite.

Otherwise, the scenes are a weird amalgam of theatre history and campy fooling around. When Jephthah's daughter is to be burnt to death, the scene turns into a disco inferno as Arias mounts the pyre, microphone in hand, delivering a number with a strong dance beat. An Egyptian tableau based on another epic, "The Queen's Enemies," climaxes in a cleverly staged flood, which recedes, leaving puppet fish flopping all over the stage. A version of Walt Whitman's poem "Salut au Monde" is chaotically staged with all sorts of puppets, a pair of flapping totem poles, and both sisters dressed as Whitman, trying to steal focus. A scene about their production of a Sanskrit epic, The Little Clay Cart, simply falls flat. When they take a sabbatical to Egypt, we see them on a ship, Alice belting "Go Ask Alice" and Irene singing "Irene," with new lyrics to the Lennon-McCartney standard "Michelle." The entire Egyptian sequence seems to exist so that Arias, astride a camel puppet, can croak out the old Maria Muldaur hit "Midnight at the Oasis." (The only other significant performer is Jonothon Lyons, himself the scion of downtown royalty Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, here used mostly as beefcake in a series of ever-skimpier costumes, including what appears to be the Egyptian version of a G-string.)

This strange agglomeration of elements might have worked better if the staging were more disciplined. But the script is full of tired insults and the scenes are statically directed and surprisingly unattractive, especially under the lighting of Ayumu Poe Saegusa, which often seems to be more about concealing things (such as Arias and Muz's flying harnesses) than illuminating them. The costumes, by Machine Dazzle, have an authentically tacky glamour, especially in the case of Arias' leading-lady gowns. The projections, by Daniel Brodie and Gabriel Aronson, amusingly affix Alice and Irene's faces to various bits of molding on the show's elaborate gold proscenium. Also, the Joshua Light Show creates a series of eye-catching effects, reminiscent of the aurora borealis, in a sequence that recalls Thomas Wilfred and his famous light-art machine, the Clavilux. The sound design, by A-Key, aka Takaaki Ando, is extremely variable, however; if Arias' breathy vocals are often indistinct, it isn't his fault, and both leads' voices are buried under the orchestra during their flying duel sequence. The entire production looks seriously under-rehearsed.

There's nothing wrong with Abrons Art Center paying tribute to its own longevity, but surely there was a better way than this. Surely Alice and Irene would be thrilled to be remembered decades after their deaths, but it's easy to imagine them rolling in their graves over this hodgepodge of songs, puppetry, and low-camp gags. If I were involved in Sisters' Follies, I'd tread carefully when inside the theatre, for fear that the Lewisohns might swoop down on them, seeking revenge. --David Barbour

(8 October 2015)

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