Highly Recommended **** The Side Project Theatre produces exclusively new plays that, with some exceptions, tend to be highly topical. They often reference, or are even set, in the midst of contemporary controversies. Consequently, it is unlikely that many of them will ever reach canonical status as they focus so much on current issues and contemporary cultural pathologies. Nevertheless, I have never learned so much about human nature in so little time in the confines of such a small performance space than I have at the many productions I have attended over the past year or so at the Side Project. Great Tech work (often against the great odds of the cramped, square, room serving as the stage), and impressive acting are commonplace there even when the script tries to do too much, too little, or is so intense that is difficult to bear so that at the very least one almost always get a strong sense of place, a convincing and appropriate ambience, and terrific acting. That said, more often than not the productions give us a very intense but palatable experience on all levels: plot, direction, acting, and technical properties whatever the play’s mood, tone, or degree of intensity.
“Twin Set” marks a departure from the Side Project’s more topical plays set in the near present. Instead, it is a 1970’s, semi-period, piece that deals with themes and events that nevertheless have universal resonance across time and space. While the play takes place nearly forty years ago, thematically it centers on what are permanent facets and concerns of the human condition including identity, homosociality, marriage and divorce (and annulments), sibling relationships (specifically, between two sisters who happen to be identical twins), and the dissolution of merged persons into two, totally separate, beings. These issues aren’t confined to that period. They are the constant dilemmas and themes that we all still negotiate while trying to best understand our relationship to each other and what it means to be fully human so that the play, with a few alterations, could take place today.
Still, the 1970’s setting lent a remote, almost nostalgic feel which highlight by contrast the universality of the play’s themes. Meggy (Maura Kidwell) and Betty (Amy Johnson) are identical twins in their mid-thirties who feel that they may be approaching spinsterhood. (I think that state might have set in a bit earlier in the 1970’s.) They dress identically, live together, share a room with twin beds, are vociferously religious, and insist on double dates so that they never have to be without each other. None of which bodes well for what they concede are diminishing romantic prospects. Enter Marnie (Meredith Rae Lyons), a woman with whom they attended High School and Saint Catherine’s, but who has long since abandoned traditional values and Catholicism. Nonetheless, she is reluctant to capitulate to her husband’s request for an annulment, knowing very well that she will have to go before a priest and say that she entered into the marriage never intending to make a permanent union (which she makes clear would be a lie). Additionally, she will have to pay a fee, making her highly cynical of the whole process: “Dole out some money and boom: the marriage never happened,” she remarks bitterly.
She is bitterer than she otherwise might be because her husband John is the one who left her for another women—now his new fiancé, who he hopes to marry within the Church, after Marnie provided exhausting emotional and financial support during their marriage. The fact that he will have recourse to pursue an annulment unilaterally without her consent or testimony if she refuses to perjure herself in front of the priest makes her even more resentful.
Perhaps because of the difficulty of her situation, the sisters are hospitable to this woman: praying for her (albeit reluctantly), finding her an ashtray (they don’t smoke), and a sofa so that she doesn’t have to continue sleeping on the floor (which she had been doing after she told the sisters that she was going to stay with them and that there was nothing they could do about it), never realizing that she threatens their own sisterly identity. For during the few times Marnie is alone with either Betty or Meggy, she offers deep friendship, advice, and affectionate overtures to both sisters, independent of each other, which border on the romantic. Marnie has been through a lot, and there is a high degree of manipulation, even cruelty in her behavior, but it is interspersed with moments of deep and genuine tenderness so that one can’t help but wonder what her motives are. She never reveals to either sister that she is cultivating a friendship with both, and she seems to play one sister against the other and simultaneously conveys deep affection and genuine concern for both (an impressive balancing act by Lyons) whether it is simply humanitarian, platonic, romantic, or some combination of all three.
Disaster strikes before we are ever able to fully grasp her motives or character. Perhaps she wants to dissolve the unity of the sister’s bond manifested in clothing, identical necklaces, nightstands, and twin beds just as she fears the union between her and her husband, John, may be dissolved if he petitions the Church unilaterally without her consent or input. More charitably, she may feel a genuine connection to both women as the plot develops, and all three characters face the increasingly likelihood that they will be alone in the world. Nor does she realize that the consequences of undoing the twin’s nearly merged identity will be disaster for all involved, especially herself.
Johnson and Kidwell perform gestures and speak lines, including extremely important ones, in exact same time without ever having to look at each other. But when Meredith gets involved, they begin to speak, look, and act differently through the increasing amounts emotional violence on Meredith’s part which eventually develops into something much worse. Throughout, the sisters are driven further and further apart culminating in Meggy’s insistence that she is not in a position to take Communion with her sister one morning. The sister’s personalities will be tenanitively reunited in the play’s haunting last line, which the sisters speak simultaneously, but due to some of Brodie’s directorial choices, remains a little too ambiguous.
I have come to realize appreciate Lyons as talented, multifaceted, actress, and in other productions have appreciated her charisma and realism, but this is the first time I grasped the full extent of her range and versatility. Her performances was so strong that I recognized her only by name. In this part, she is able to deliver incredible intensity, humour, wit, glamour, and an and appropriate degree of mystery. She switches effortlessly between the sardonic, cruel, and tender while still able to conceal her underlying motives whatever those may be. While, at least to the very end of the play, and possibly beyond, we know more about Lyon’s character than either sister, she still able to make Marnie a mystery while insisting there are reasons behind her actions, producing a wonderful effect.
Overall, I thought Bodie’s direction was excellent. Her decision to insist that Johnson and Kidwell begin with highly caricatured performances producing fairly immature characters initially struck me as a mistake, especially when set off against Lyons incredibly charismatic, versatile, and nuanced performance. However, it turned out to be a stroke of genius because it allowed us to watch Johnson and Kidwell slowly give their character’s independent identities never quite cognizant that it is happening or the danger of doing so. Both actresses managed both this tension and the slowly incremental change extremely deftly as each glance, movement, and gesture become more and more significant and realistic as it becomes independent of the other sister’s. The theater is located at 1439 West Jarvis in Rogers Park and will continue as follows:
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Show Type: Dark Comedy
Box Office: 773-340-0140