It must have seemed like a fabulous idea – Basil Twist, the puppeteer so inventive that he just won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, using his artistry in collaboration with several downtown talents to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Abrons Arts Center, the vibrant cultural arm of Henry Street Settlement.
“Basil Twist’s Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds” is visually spectacular (as you can see from the photographs below) making full use of Twist’s inspired craftsmanship and that of his design team.
But it is otherwise oddly awful, and awfully odd; such an eccentric way to celebrate the Abrons legacy that it feels like a deliberate self-parody.
The show focuses on the two sisters who founded the Neighborhood Playhouse (which eventually morphed into the Abrons Arts Center.) Alice Lewisohn and Irene Lewisohn are portrayed by two celebrated downtown fixtures, drag queen Joey Arias and burlesque/performance artist Julie Atlas Muz; both also co-wrote the script with Twist. We first see them flying in the air atop long white sheets – this, you see, is a ghost story; the premise is that the Lewisohns haunt the Abrons.
Their faces are then cleverly super-imposed on the stone sculpture of the comedy and tragedy mask carved above the stage. The two faces recite a wooden script that seems a mash-up of awards ceremony patter and the sort of history lesson that those Animatronic robots used to utter at World’s Fair exhibits:
Irene: I shall never forget the opening night of our playhouse…February 12 1915
Alice: I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a chilly winter’s night with a clear sky filled with stars….A dream come true
In between the patter, and some antic verbal sparring and mid-air physical battles between the siblings, the show purports to re-enact scenes from plays with which the Lewisohns were involved, starting with something called Jepthah’s Daughter. But the scenes – always somehow featuring a bare-chested chiseled hunk in an exotic costume – suspiciously resemble campy frolics from the 1980’s, and thus seem unreliable re-creations of the turn-of-the-century dance dramas and avant-garde spectacles that we are told were Lewisohn specialties.
There are also musical numbers clearly created for the show, some of them pop hits with new inferior lyrics.
A highlight comes near the end, when the two stars of Sisters Follies come out to express their sincere appreciation for Abrons, which has showcased their own talents over the years. During the entire heart-felt tribute, Muz is topless.
It needs to be said that both Arias and Muz have created terrific shows in the past, and that to Muz, nudity is a political act. (“Julie proudly champions the tradition of naked ladies in public spaces as acts of political resistance initiated in the 11th century by Lady Godiva.”) Still, in tribute to an arts center that has showcased the talents of an astonishing range of artists — from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn, Dizzy Gillespie to Orson Welles, David Henry Hwang to Denzel Washington — her breasts speak volumes, though maybe from the wrong library.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged
Basil Twist’s Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds
Abrons Arts Center
Created and Directed by Basil Twist
Written by Basil Twist, Julie Atlas Muz, and Joey Arias
Music Direction by Wayne Barker
Lighting Design by Poe Saegusa
Costume Design by Machine Dazzle
Sound Design by A-key
Projection Design by Daniel Brodie
Creative Producer Barbara Busackino
Cast: Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz, with performers Kate Brehm, Lute Breuer, Chris De Ville, John Dyer, Ben Elling, Jonothon Lyons, Katie Melby, David Ojala, Jessica Scott, Rachael Shane, Ashley Winkfield
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $55 (on weekdays), $65 (on weekends)
Sisters’ Follies is scheduled to run through October 31.