Two estranged sisters rehash their differences when they are brought together by their mother's funeral and receive shared property in their mother's will. Although the script is often poignant, the production drags and the staging is standoffish. Not even flashy performances by Janice Mann and Chuck Saculla can give this show the shot of adrenaline that it needs.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
While funerals are events in which we lament for and recall the good things about the deceased person's life, they are also events that call for the assessment of our own lives. Where we have gone wrong and what we can do to make it right are issues that consistently come up. And in Sarah Hollister's Sisters' Dance, there is much to be made up for, but few tangible and acceptable ways to make it right.
It is 1981 on a farm in Michigan, and after a valiant fight with cancer, the matriarch of the family, Mother (Blanche Cholet), has just passed away. Dutiful and morbidly unhappy daughter Alice (Laura Fois) tries her best to figure out the next steps with her money-hungry and undersexed husband Roy (Nick Ruggeri), but he does little to offer her comfort. The show opens on a visually impressive mobile set by Brian Garber that shows the interior of Mother's kitchen as well as a large, gliding swing up front. The walls of the house are nonexistent, allowing the audience to witness the action that develops mostly in the retro kitchen, but that design also violates reality. Unless these farmers live in a glass house, there's no reason why we should be able to look inside even though the characters try their hardest to make it look like there are solid walls. Also, the kitchen is upstage and distances the characters from the audience. Not only do we have the empty swing in our line of view, but the characters are almost hidden from us inside the house even though we can see them. It makes it very difficult to connect to their experiences.
From the beginning, the mood of the play is overcast with depression and lifelessness, from the lack of nature sounds we would expect in a farm setting to the languid way Fois and Ruggeri deliver their lines. Fois' voice is particularly inflected with malaise. The gloominess extends even further than what one would expect from the recent funeral, and we know right off the bat that there are underlying issues. Unfortunately, the pacing bores us even after we get to them.
Fleur (Janice Mann), Alice's prodigal sister and suprisingly (younger sisters are usually portrayed in drama as the flighty, wild ones), the older one, appears on the farm to visit her sick mother, only to find out that she has already passed away. With her colorful dress comes a wild personality that can't be hidden by occassional expressions of grief. Also evident is Alice and Roy's disdain for her flagrant lifestyle and noncommittal attitude. The animosity between Roy and Fleur is also aggravated by a subtle, sexual tension that gets revisited throught the play. Mann tries her best to cut up the dismal mood, but it persists. After overcoming the shock of her mother's death, she also learns that Roy has put down their mother's cherished dog. When the insults and judgments start to fly across the kitchen, an older woman that we come to realize is the spirit of the Mother enters the stage from the room that was once her bedroom. From there, she serves as a pacifier, laying her hands on her daughters and sometimes violating her ethereal status when she moves objects around. No one comments on the fact that pillows and such are not in the place that they left them. Hollister's decision to include the Mother's character seems to be motivated by tenderness, but it doesn't serve an alternate purpose. The character of Mother could have been ommitted, particularly since her presence already looms in the attempts of her daughters to abide by her last will and testament.
Mother bequeaths Alice with the house and Fleur with the bean farm, and since the two cannot be separated, it is a strategy to force the squabbling sisters to work together. This strategy backfires at first, bringing more dissention and strife that ebb and flow as the play progresses until hunky Duncan (Chuck Saculla), Fleur's lover, shows up to ruffle even more feathers at the end of the first act. This is a strange place to insert him, considering that when you factor in all the secrets and lies, the climax doesn't hinge on his arrival. And although Saculla is energetic and shares passionately dysfunctional moments with Mann, it's still not enough to liven the show. Tension continues to accumulate in the plot, but does very little to engage the audience.
This show is reminiscent of Lisa Roth's 2007 drama, Coming or Going, about sisters reunited for their father's funeral, but Roth's show had much more pep. The set for this show does a lot to keep us from becoming enthralled. It shakes to unintentionally mimic an earthquake when the characters thrash about and when the entire set is turned 90 degrees to the right to open the space for the yard, it alienates us even more from the characters. The action develops even further away from the audience in Act II, and destroys any chance for us to be invested. Paul Adams directs some of the scenes very tightly, preventing us from seeing some of the characters' faces or body gestures during important moments. Despite distractions like this, Hollister's wordy but strong script spits out some great lines that are rooted in truth and discernment, and they are ultimately the strongest part of this production. A pervading sense of isolation and loneliness for both Alice and Fleur even though they're both never alone is rooted in the dialogue, and for the most part, the direction is geared towards preserving that. However, what may be literal to the script is not always what makes a good theatrical experience. By depriving the cast of intimacy in the direction, the audience is also deprived of a connection.
Sisters' Dance is a resonant piece that may not brighten your day, but it does make you think about the importance of family and different forms of suffering. And although getting to the pearls of wisdom may seem like hard labor, at least there are some jewels at the end of your struggles.
Through March 2nd. Baruch Performing Arts Center at 55 Lexington Avenue. Tickets, priced $50 (general admission) and $25 (students with ID), are available by visiting www.eatheatre.org or by calling (866) 811-4111.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.