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.

Jennifer Krasinski

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.

Out of Shape


Ieva Misevičiūtė performing in Sanya Kantarovksy’s “Apricot Juice” at Studio Voltaire.

WHEN THE DEVIL COMES TO MOSCOW, he puts on a vaudeville show.

At least, that was his M.O. in Mikhail Bulgakov’s mesmerizing The Master and Margarita, which was written in the prime purge period from 1928–1940, but could only be published in 1967. Dazzling and dense, the book splices a reverie on writer’s block, a defense of Pontius Pilate, and a razor-sharp critique of the early Soviet state—though to be fair, that last one writes its own jokes.

The novel opens with a kitsch-schilling poet and the director of the Writers Union in conversation at Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds. The city is slathered with an unseasonable heat, and the kiosk advertising cold beer has only apricot juice, so warm it’s starting to ferment. Artist Sanya Kantarovsky chose this scene as the point of departure for his ode to the novel, an exhibition titled “Apricot Juice” that opened in London’s Studio Voltaire this spring. The painter modeled the near-grotesque, cartoonish stances of his main characters on gesture-studies made of shape-shifter Ieva Misevičiūtė, who delivered an opening-night performance on a stage cut like the silhouette of a fat black cat, a nod to Behemoth, one of the devil’s more absurd accomplices in the novel.

After startling audiences with her linguistic triple-lutzes in Michael Portnoy’s 27 Gnoses, which premiered at Documenta 13 in 2012, Misevičiūtė has been honing her act through a series of solo performances and occasional curatorial forays (she helped craft the conceit for the “Mindaugas Triennial,” the 2012 edition of the Baltic Triennial). Her particular brand of sorcery is hard to pin down, alternately suggesting Butoh, cabaret, calisthenics, an open mic night at a comedy club, or an exorcism. Long and limber, her body wraps itself around snippets of recognizable choreography—a grand plié, a lock step—incrementally exaggerating the gestures until they have reached a point beyond slapstick. “Unproductive gymnastics,” she calls it. It might be worth noting that the artist spent her youth training to be a clown.

With its mix of sensuality, fantasy, and satire, Master and Margarita offered an ideal context for Misevičiūtė. Her act opened quietly, with the artist gliding through the crowd in a crimson-colored tunic, her ears painted to match. Once on stage, she slipped almost imperceptibly into the poses that inspired Kantarovsky’s paintings. Like the novel, there was no clear linear narrative, only a series of “bits” set to a soundtrack patched together from krautrock, NASA recordings of sound in space, and contemporary techno. Misevičiūtė moved in and out of the music, her body disconnecting with the jerky persistence of a wind-up-toy. For one bit, she tucked two long red poles into her sleeves, mimicking the expressive proportions in the paintings. Her body no longer appeared human, but rather like one of those windsock salesmen genuflecting over quickie car washes.

These kinds of contortions formed the heart of Lord of Beef, a performance Misevičiūtė premiered last year at LAXART and which has since traveled to Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, the Centre Pompidou, the Block Universe Performance Festival in London, and the Liste performance program curated by Eva Birkenstock. On Sunday, October 18, the piece will make its East Coast debut as part of the programming for the fourth edition of “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1.

Ieva Misevičiūtė, Lord of Beef, 2014. Performance views. Left: Centre Pompidou, Paris. Right: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London.

Lord of Beef opens with the artist taking the stage, all in black, with semi-translucent tights and a thick black stripe effectively voiding the space from her forehead to her nose. She addresses her audience directly, her voice pouring thick like that warm apricot juice: “Now I am going to do a series of impersonations for you.” Like her choreography, her impressions emerge from a kernel of recognizable reality—Slavoj Žižek’s sputtering proclamations, Putin’s all-purpose power stride, or Klaus Biesenbach’s hawk-eyed once-over of a room—then lunge into increasingly exaggerated riffs. The targets of her impersonations follow suit, veering more into comedic surrealism, à la “The Space Between the Anthropocentrism and Object-Oriented Ontology, Or Angelina Jolie Swimming in a Giant Bathtub,” or “I Don’t Need Friends, I’d Prefer Some Parents.” Huffing and snorting, the artist uses chewing-gum bubbles or manipulations of her tongue (based on a rare breed of Butoh) to further distort the shape her face, while her body lurches in and out of sync with the soundtrack.

Misevičiūtė’s efforts to obscure the legibility of her figure only amplify the audience’s awareness of her body. She applies a similar pressure on theatrical conventions. Her set is interrupted with the pantomime of a phone call, which the artist fields dutifully, casting pleading “forgive me” eyes at her audience as her invisible conversant appears to drone on and on. It is theater interrupting theater, with no attempt at artifice.

Master and Margarita ends with its main characters vanishing, leaving Moscow’s tongues flapping and the city’s only sane minds carted off to a suburban sanitarium. When the lights go out on Misevičiūtė, the audience is left in a similar pause, struggling to piece together what we’ve witnessed. Too slapstick to be genuine, too genuine to be satire, too unnerving to be empty-calorie entertainment – that’s the way it is in vaudeville?

Kate Sutton

Lord of Beef runs on October 18 at 3 PM as part of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions, “The Cringe: Art, Anxiety and Performance: With Ieva Misevičiūtė & Rebecca Patek,” organized as part of Greater New York.

Game On


Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Performance view, Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015. Hawaii (Rachel Berman). Photo: David Velasco.

IT’S A FUNNY THING to spend five hours with something and not know how you feel about it. This is especially true when it’s someone else’s thing, that you have ostensibly, or so convention holds, been invited in to witness.

Sarah Michelson’s four-day tournamento took over the Walker Art Center’s William and Nadine McGuire Theater last week. I was in attendance for only the final hours on Sunday, starting with two-and-a-half hours of afternoon activities that began at 4 PM, followed by the last official show, which began at 7.

But “activities” isn’t quite right here, and neither is “show.” Better to leave out the categories for now and stick to observable details (and here I’m tempted to sub “facts” for “details,” but no):

Four main players enter the stage-as-arena at staggered times, representing their home states: Rachel Berman in red for Hawaii, John Hoobyar in green for Oregon, Jennifer Lafferty in blue for California (specifically, Southern California), Nicole Mannarino in yellow for Ohio. They are all on some spectrum from drawn to spent, save for Berman, who seems cloaked in protective youth. Each is flanked by a duo of young teamsters, often beautifully awkward, who sub on and off the floor, yelling “thank you” when they exit the stage at a heavy run, and otherwise bouncing, gesticulating, echoing, and keeping their eyes laser-beamed on their respective player as said player cycles through distinct but related steps and phrases, recognizable to those familiar with Michelson’s stew of Cunningham, ballet, yoga, athletics, yells, witchy hand gestures, and the like.

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015. Photo: Gene Pittman.

The players are intensely, mostly inwardly focused, going over their movements again and again and again. At times they function like parentheticals in a space rendered visually and aurally chaotic by a plethora of video screens (showing hand-drawn portraits and myth-making “rehearsal” footage of those on stage), score cards, variously low and loud soul and disco, digital timers and scores, on-stage bleachers dotted with audience members, lighting equipment, a long black platform, the loud calls of scorekeepers, and Michelson’s trademark neon portraits. Three soigné judges—Madeline Wilcox, Danielle Goldman, and James Tyson—sit at a table stage left, calling out coded messages and evaluating according to recondite criteria.

Overseeing it all, her back to the tiered seating, is Michelson, a coach-as-god figure who from a table full of MacBooks and mixing consoles manipulates the music (and the videos?), voices color and play-by-play commentary, gives whispered consultations, and periodically, almost obscenely scream-growls “Let’s play!” into a gold microphone. She wears a black jumpsuit decorated with the “LIFE | DANCE | DEATH” Venn-diagram logo of The Bureau for the Future of Choreography, evoking an alternate-universe dance Olympics. The logo is a starkly humorous choice given the Bureau’s eschewal of individual ownership versus Michelson’s cult of authorship.

And, finally, there is a winner, a high-scorer. And it all ends abruptly a little after 9 PM, unceremoniously, predictably: We’re finished, you all do what you want, you watchers, this wasn’t for you in the first place.

There is much more to describe, but perhaps you get the picture. (Other maybe-helpful references: old time gladiators and their present-day reenactments such as The Hunger Games and American Gladiators, arcane sporting events full of hunched-over old men keeping obsessive box scores.) It’s pure theater, at its most alienating; dance-theater as the occasion for “pure” dance as Trojan Horse. Questions of agency and control and power sprawl messily throughout the theater, all the brutal hierarchies we like to ignore at our art spectacles, and I find myself thinking of Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (2011), specifically as she interrogates consent, and the myriad condescensions of the audience member toward the performer: “The question of whether it is ever cruel to do unto someone what she would like you to do unto her—or at least what she has authorized having done unto her—remains alive.” I can’t tell if the stakes are way too high, or not nearly high enough. And I think that maybe I really hated tournamento, and that this (the hating) doesn’t matter. I stayed for all those hours… and so, really, what or who did I actually find loathsome in the end?

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Walker Art Center, September 23, 2015. Seated, left to right: Madeline Wilcox, Danielle Goldman, James Tyson; standing, left to right: Destiny Anderson, Margaret Skelly, Nicole Mannarino. Photo: Gene Pittman.

And this all leads me to Ralph Lemon: “I think the violence becomes part of what the agreement is about.”

That was Lemon reading the night after tournamento ended, as part of Scaffold Room: (Memory) Refraction #1, to mark the one-year anniversary of The Walker acquiring Scaffold Room. I don’t have the mandate right now to do any kind of justice to this Refraction, so I can only say that it makes breathing feel possible, and at the same time makes clear my unending grubby audience need to be seduced, and throws into stark illumination Michelson’s middle finger (which maybe, probably, is only my [mis]perception, revealing a more insidious need) on that front.

The Lemon–Michelson conversation has been in high gear for awhile now, some of it spinning off his invitation to have her present work as part of his “Some sweet day” series in 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art, with the not-so-secret nudge that participants consider the question “What is black music?” And, finally, Lemon’s Refraction that night was—I think I can claim this—still reverberating with Blackness and Nonperformance, the madly dizzying reading Fred Moten delivered at MoMA last Friday, in which consent and refusal and bodies and time swirled just out of (my) reach in his three-dimensional idea web. (Does it matter that both Lemon and Michelson, in Minneapolis, presented their muses [yes, that word] in moments of wild crying breakdown? Matter to what, to whom?)

And but so. The winner of tournamento is Hawaii: 4135 inscrutable points to Ohio’s 4107, despite Ohio’s sublime incandescent off-the-railsness, her T-shirt and short-shorts (so many ways for short shorts to fit and gorgeously not fit so many asses) soaked through, her skin glistening and nipples reading ever-more-clearly through the drenched fabric. If there is a winner, it follows, there must be a loser—but that’s in the theater that is sports, not art. Here we’re all left with something else entirely. If there can be any agreement, is it that (ultimately? for now?) that’s what it’s all about, for all of us, this pursuit of the elusive something else? To end, with apologies, with the inevitable: Let’s play.

Claudia La Rocco

Sarah Michelson’s tournamento ran September 24–27, 2015 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Performance view, Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015.