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The Tank, New York City

Butterflies
4.0Reviewer's Rating

Mid-show, a woman tenderly sings “Fly Me to the Moon” to her newborn child as a lullaby, rocking him gently in her arms and looking at him like nothing else in the world matters. This moment is an anomaly.

In the background of this moment is the aunt to that child, who stands at a distance and looks on the little family with something that looks like jealousy, or perhaps fear. That encapsulates the tone of Butterflies a little better.

Two sisters, referred to only as Blonde (Annie Watkins) and Brunette (Danielle Sacks), find humor amidst their toxic family life by playing a game they’ve kept up for twenty years: whichever one of them possesses the almighty butterfly hair clip can ask the other to do anything she wants. The game begins innocently enough – they prod each other to post a sexy photo online or get an embarrassing tattoo for the laughs. Over the next twenty years, beginning when they separate for the first time in their lives and sporadically come back together again, the stakes get higher every time they make their pact upon that hair clip. Fun pranks and silly dares are soon replaced with life-altering demands, and the game turns into a manipulative weapon. It tests the limits of their sisterly bond and makes them realize that their “souls might not be made of the same stuff” like they thought, but they don’t know how to handle that.

It’s a brilliantly written play for multiple reasons, foremost among them the parallelism. Lines are repeated throughout the show but by a different sister each time – as their lives progress, they end up on opposite sides of the same arguments they had twenty years ago. The repeated phrases range from the simple – “I’m playing” – to the intense – “I will be merciless in my revenge” – and Emanuele Aldrovandi imbues them all with an equally arresting urgency, so no line (except for the overuse of a certain R-word) seems trifling or needlessly employed. Few scenes drag, and the overall pace alternates nicely between hysteric, whistle-stop arguments over the value of marriage or motherhood, and slower moments for contemplation or much-needed comic relief.

The main characters, too, are excellently written. The sisters’ seemingly normal, flippant, and “I’m-not-like-other-girls” attitude masks some truly terrifying personalities. Both Watkins and Sacks delivered electrifying performances. Aside from always calling each other “sis,” they near-perfectly capture the nuances of a sisterly relationship – testing each other’s limits, joking about each other’s flaws, and even saying they hate each other, but sharing the deepest parts of themselves with each other and loving each other deep down. (Probably.)

Each stands on her own as an actress, too, in all their roles. Though the sisters are the only billed characters, there are multiple supporting characters that make appearances – their father and stepmother, a lustful doctor and his gum-smacking nurse with a Long Island accent (the providers of an excellent comedic moment), Blonde’s husband, among others – and Watkins and Sacks play them all. This choice is not explained upfront and the transitions can thus be confusing at times, but the actresses juggle their many hats well. Their cloying and desperately indebted father – or rather, the puppet of him made of a handmade head on a broomstick – is oh-so-predictable in his constant grabs for money, but Sacks’ parody makes him into one of the show’s funniest characters without stepping an actual foot onstage.

Like the sisters in it, Butterflies itself is cleverly deceptive. You think you know where the plot is going – and you’ll probably be right – but the end brings a final twist that’s difficult to anticipate, jolting you back from the edge of your seat that you’ll no doubt be on during the lead-up. It’s quite possible you’ll still be reeling from the butterflies in your stomach hours later.

  • Drama
  • Written by Emanuele Aldrovandi; translated by Carlotta Brentan
  • Directed by Jay Stern
  • Cast includes: Annie Watkins, Danielle Sacks
  • The Tank, New York City
  • Until 8 June 2019

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