The old bromide “Be careful what you wish for” is richly applied in Art House, Idly Bent Theatre Company’s East Coast premiere of an intriguing new work from Australian actress & playwright Rachael Coopes. Two sisters develop a fake suicide scheme that grants them both what they claim to want, yet the cost to their self-images, their relationship, and even their very sanity is much greater than either of them imagined.
Charlie (Rachael Jacobs) is a struggling artist who conspires to fake her death in order to achieve fame and artistic respect (Not a spoiler . It is quickly revealed in the opening minutes of the play). Her partner in crime is her younger sister Viva (Chelsea Mayo).
The two sisters are more than a little different. Charlie is an erratic, eclectic, bohemian tornado. Everything about her, from her bouncing brunette curls held in place by a peacock feather comb to her uninhibited dancing and rebellious dialogue, practically screams “I am an artist!’
Viva is her apparent opposite in almost every way. She is a practical young business woman, more worried about getting her employer’s budget done and pleasing their mother than pursuing the fame that Charlie hungers for.
Despite their differences, they click immediately as sisters. They have an easy rapport, full of teasing and the experiential shorthand that only family members know.
Yet Charlie and Viva have a deeply co-dependent relationship, one that suffers from the stresses of their conspiracy and changing power dynamic between the two. Over time these pressures reveal the underside of their familial bonds. Beneath the love are elements of jealousy, resentment, and control.
As their scheme ostensibly works, a variety of complications arise over a period of months. While Charlie starts to encounter the effects of her isolation, Viva experiences the freedom to explore sides of her personality that had never manifested before. Despite the noirish nature of the story, the paths of two women’s respective evolutions always feel true and compelling.
Playwright Coopes has the rare gift of writing dialogue that is both realistic and poetic. Both Chelsea Mayo and Rachael Jacobs use that dialogue to give splendidly textured performances.
Director Julia Sears exhibits a sure touch guiding this two-hander. The story of the sisters and their scheme comes across as fanciful yet well-grounded. She skillfully uses the small gallery performance space at CAOS on F to tell the story in a well-staged and intimate manner. The gradual dissolution of the set artfully illustrates the situation’s deteriorating impacts on the sisters and their transforming relationship.
One of the marks of a great production is that the characters stay in your mind long after you leave the theatre. This reviewer defies anyone to catch Idly Bent Theatre Company’s Art House and easily put aside wondering about the fate of these sisters. Act quickly, though — the too short, two weekend run is already half over.
Art House by Rachael Coopes . Directed by Julia Sears . Produced by Idly Bent Theatre Company . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.