Since 1967, the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, housed in the East Village's 200-year-old St. Mark's Church, has provided New Yorkers with regular doses of its founder's trademark cluttered-symbolist-folkloric-multimedia-Surrealism. They hysterically practice ontology—the study of the nature of existence itself, complete with trips through the collective subconscious and visual delights such as giant hummingbirds, alien seances, and model planes piloted by gangs of baby dolls. A good deal of this is provided by Foreman's productions of his own plays, but, as Artistic Director of the Ontological-Hysteric, he has also been broadening the tradition by inviting other, often emerging artists to try out his ideas, and their own, in the Ontological Incubator. The Incubator is a wonderful program, because, let's face it, not all theatre audiences like Foreman's plotless phantasmagorias straight up. Some, however, might be more open to Foremanesque performance if it has the semblance of a traditional narrative. The Incubator's latest presentation, The Brainium Brothers and Sons Theatrical Outfit's The Two Sisters, or Douglas Mery, Next to Nothing! (A Play About Witches Under Pressure), draws heavily on Foreman's bag of tricks, and his sumptuous visual style, but also follows a story, a Southern Gothic family drama centered on a pair of orphaned sister “witches” who tell fortunes from their pageant wagon.
The sisters are personifications of two of the modern age's most powerful inspiring daemons: religious and scientific curiosity. The resulting script, co-authored by Matt Cosper and director Anthony Cerrato, is a bit rough around the edges, and gets off to a slow start. It trades on some rather tired conventions, but is nevertheless enchanting, mainly for its visual style and smart, humanizing acting.
The older of the two witches, played by Melissa Miller as a gritty yet sultry pragmatist, possibly represents science; the younger (Tara McMullen) searches for her dead mother and is prone to fits of religious zeal. The two struggle to control each other until the arrival of a drifter (Aaron White) with a gunshot wound, the titular Douglas. At one point, he refers to himself as "Modern Man." Soon, this poor guy is entangled in the sisters' love-hate relationship, and seduced, tormented, and endangered by them.
The battle between science and religion, and the legend of "modern man" tormented by demoniacal abstractions symbolized by ruthless and hysterical “witches” isn't exactly avant-garde, but The Two Sisters, or Douglas Mery, Next to Nothing! is entertaining. There's a truly magical moment when the trio of characters are caught in the pageant-wagon in a storm, and an interesting divided-lady circus trick. Miller is a particularly gifted actress, showing her character's toughness, loneliness, and harsh love for her uncontrollable sister, whose beliefs and behaviour frighten her terribly.
Kaitlyn Mulligan's set is one of the most delightful and ambitious I've seen in awhile: a faded turquoise "gypsy wagon" with windows that open all sorts of ways, increasingly revealing more and more of its interior, with a skirt of dusty gold cloth, perched on a wilderness hill covered with the dust of the earth and ultimately revealing several holes with buried secrets. There are some incredible special effects that I really shouldn't describe in advance, heightened by Stephen Arnold's sublime and suspenseful lighting. Jason Sebastian's sound design effectively mixes modern influences with ominous noise and folksy tunes.
In the set design and blocking, the oddly-shaped space of the Ontological is ignored rather than treated as a challenge: one of the pillars holding up the ceiling bisects the set for no aesthetic reason, and this reviewer's view of a monologue was blocked because the actress stood immediately behind that pillar. Annie Simon's costumes are great, a combination of Depression-era South workaday clothes and bright, shiny, clashing motley of medieval jesters.
The Brainium get off some good lines and images. “You don't love me—you'd do what I say if you loved me,” the religious sister rants, like a petulant God. “Why is it that I've come here?” the man asks. “To dig,” he's told, and tossed a spade. To dig for what? Answers, or his grave? There are also moments in which the dialogue becomes pretentious and clichéd. “I do not desire the end of the world,” one of the witches cackles. “My desire is the end of the world!”
Other cliches are trotted out: “Frankenstein” and "Einstein" are often name-dropped; the sisters perform brain surgery, with the older, scientific one analyzing the man's brain and the younger, spiritual one trying to inscribe it by writing on a giant book.
When the man tries to find his stolen raccoon-fur hat—his symbolised true self—he is confused by identical hats appearing on the heads of both sisters at once. Which is authentic? Foreman's own plays tend to raise often original questions about the nature of consciousness, reality, and memory. The Two Sisters only rehashes an old feud.
In short, the script of this play needs a little further work, but the show is entertaining and eye-catching, with a fantastic central performance. Foreman fans in particular should not miss it.