Delusional Downtown Divas

Basil Twist, Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, 2015. Performance view, Abrons Arts Center, New York, October 2, 2015. Alice Lewisohn and Irene Lewisohn (Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz). Photo: Richard Termine.

THE PSYCHOSIS OF SISTERHOOD never goes out of style, I suppose. Two recent performances feature characters who are sisters—each other’s closest and most cherished rivals—and yet strangely at the heart of each of these productions is a kind mourning or meditation on theatrical space. Why?

Basil Twist’s latest production, Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, was commissioned for the one hundredth anniversary of Abrons Playhouse, founded in 1915 by sisters Alice and Irene Lewisohn to give a home and audience to avant-garde theater. Part of the absolute delight of the show is its celebration-cum–send up of a certain history of New York’s avant-garde—a cheeky tribute to the oddball and kinky nature of thespian visions of yore, apparently no less absurd or luminous than those of today.

Propelled by the magnetic forces of Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz, Sisters’ Follies is—at face value—a ghost story. Abrons’s founding sisters Alice and Irene (Arias and Muz, respectively) appear before us as spirits floating above the stage to tell us their story and reenact their proudest moments at the Playhouse. Raven haired and kohl-eyed, Arias is the vain actress Alice, a lighter, more loving version of Baby Jane. With a halo of blond curls and a cherubic smile, Muz plays the sweet, enthusiastic Irene, a dancing minx in angel’s clothing (or lack thereof). Between numbers, the two appear to narrate the story of the theater, bicker over the spotlight, later making up in the name of art—while time and time again bringing the house down with a few choice pieces from their repertoire.

In “Jepthah’s Daughter,” we see Arias-as-Alice playing the young girl who sacrificed herself so that her father would be successful in battle. (Warning: Audiences who giggle at mentions of the girl’s youth will get the stink eye from Arias.) Wearing a sparkling headdress and gown and standing on a pyre while silk flames wave all around, Arias sings a song of love and fate that dissolves into a frenzied performance of “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Muz-as-Irene shines as Carmelis in “The Kairn of Kordiwen,” her expressionistic, interpretive dance of a young woman who must choose between her love of the warrior Mordred and her belief in the Druid goddesses. (Roll over Mary Wigman, if only to make room in your grave.) Dressed in Machine Dazzle’s mesmerizing creations, Alice and Irene present us with other gems too, including “The Queen’s Enemies,” in which we watch Cleopatra drown a stage full of Egyptians, and “Salut au Monde,” a tribute to Walt Whitman, which was apparently misunderstood by audiences at the time. (I’m not sure we understood it better now, although we undoubtedly laughed harder.)

At first, it may seem merely incidental or sweet that Sisters’ Follies was commissioned to honor the Abrons’s centenary. It isn’t only that—at least, not at this moment. With the ribbon freshly cut on the new St Ann’s Warehouse, and P.S.122 reopening its renovated space next summer, there is growing concern that these and other shifts in scale will affect the work born in this city. Opportunities for incubation and development seem to be slipping away; so does a certain ground-level support of New York’s performance community. While every New Yorker gets caught in real-estate talk, the conversation is especially tender for performance spaces. It’s also always ongoing.

In mid-July at the Kitchen, the sublime and gutting reproduction of Jeff Weiss and Richard C. Martinez’s And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid reminded audiences that once upon a time, plays could be presented in storefront theaters that doubled as the artists’ home. DANCENOISE’s presentation at the Whitney later that same month devoted quite a bit of installation space in homage to the place that launched their work: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which once stood on the corner of Avenue A and Seventh Street. In July 2014, The Incubator Arts Project closed its doors at Saint Mark’s Church, previously the home of Richard Foreman’s essential Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Calculating these and other losses against the gains of grander, bigger theaters is not a bid for nostalgia. It is a reminder that performance has been heartiest and most potent when given the proper space to grow.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Basil Twist’s genius—his uncanny eye for the life forces hidden inside the material world—felt even more essential the night I saw the play. He breathed life not only onto the stage but also into the house of the Abrons, transforming the theater into the third star of the show. If these walls could talk, Twist seemed to wink. Thanks to his crack team of creative collaborators—Poe Saegusa (lighting), A-Key (sound), and Daniel Brodie (video)—they did exactly that. We were surrounded by spirits, delighted and giddy. Best of all, the stagecraft was flawless not because of Broadway-sized budgets, but because of the ingenuity of all involved. In other words, it was a show that only could have happened Downtown.

Jack Ferver, Chambre, 2014. Performance view, New Museum, New York, September 23, 2015. Jack Ferver. Photo: Jason Akira Somma.

Slightly more uptown, at the New Museum, writer/director/choreographer Jack Ferver and artist Marc Swanson presented the installation/performance Chambre as part of this year’s Crossing The Line Festival. According to Ferver, the piece “examines the themes of greed, celebrity, class disparity, capital “O” otherness, and the violence that comes from these issues internally and externally.” (Phew!) To achieve all of this, Ferver whips Jean Genet’s The Maids together with excerpts from Lady Gaga’s 2013 deposition from a lawsuit brought against her by a former personal assistant alleging unpaid overtime. Also woven into Chambre are Ferver’s own texts as well as select lines from the trial testimony of Christine Lapin, one of the two sisters who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933, the event that inspired Genet’s play. Unfortunately, with arrows aimed in so many directions, it’s not a surprise this piece misses the bulls-eye.

Ferver, alongside Jacob Slominski, perform as Christine and Léa, the sisters who escape their work as maids by playing at a fantasy in which they become their mistress, go to Paris, and live a life of luxury. Theirs is a folie à deux fueled by the combustible forces of oppression, desire, and shaming. Yet when their mistress arrives (Michelle Mola), lip syncing her lines in a sing-song style and flitting about like an ADD trust-fund Tinkerbell, we understand that her delusions of grandeur are no less toxic and absurd than those of the sisters’. It’s that wealth gives her the power to materialize them.

Ferver rounds out Genet’s story by performing as Lady Gaga accusing her former assistant of entitlement and ingratitude. As one might hope, the diva bequeathed us a superior record of her nastiness. “[She] got to take private planes, eat caviar, party with Terry Richardson all night, wear my clothes, ask YSL to send her free shoes without my permission, using my YSL discount without my permission.” Although Ferver’s delivery possesses just the right touch of acid, one’s fangs don’t have to be especially sharp to chew through pulp this juicy. “She thinks she’s just like the queen of the universe,” Ferver-as-Gaga hisses, “But in my work and what I do, I’m the queen of the universe every day.” Such is the pseudo-tragedy of the star: to be misunderstood by all of her subjects in a cosmos of one. A sign of our times: Gaga’s assistant never stabbed her or gouged her eyes out; she settled out of court. She also reportedly received a million dollar book deal to dish about her former boss, a brutal blow to a celebrity—a body that largely subsists on the largesse of its own fictions.

With so much possible flesh to flay, it’s disappointing Chambre only stabs at the surface. When a performer for whatever reason doesn’t feel the necessity or urgency to produce a text all his or her own, what sometimes happens is a grazing of source materials. Here Genet’s play hangs as outline and reference, carving what we might call (with a healthy dose of venom) “the safe space of literature.” The man who moved Jean-Paul Sartre to pen Saint Genet, a kind of treatise on the origins of genius, is used to lend gravity to the piece; Genet’s presence and labor are not repaid in kind. If Ferver, a truly charismatic performer with razor sharp comedic sensibilities, isn’t interested in diving more deeply into the texts of others, he should (and could) push his own ideas to the fore—and use the full force and focus of his talons without this dubious kind of permission.

He seems to know this too. At the end of the show, Ferver takes a moment to nibble the hands that feed him. “The monetization of performance is so scary,” he tells the New Museum audience, his voice remaining in the diva register. “It’s so ridiculous that I make what I make. My friends are worried about me because I can barely afford my health insurance and they are like, Why don’t you write a movie, you are so funny, and comedy really sells.” Projecting himself into a future LA lifestyle—“New York is so gross and totally inhospitable to artists now”—Ferver riffs on the benefits of creating confections from a city that has “so much space.” If this is how a performer is to survive—more space, less art?—ah me. As another deluded diva once said, Let them eat cake.

Basil Twist’s Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds runs through November 7th at Abrons Arts Center; Jack Ferver and Marc Swanson’s Chambre was installed and performed at the New Museum from September 23rd–October 4th.