Natalie Rine, Contributing Critic - New York City
New York, NY - “My sister and I aren’t dumb like other girls our age,” the character aptly named Blonde tells the audience as she draws a chalk box around the stage space, “…They all want to be unique, and they don’t realize that’s exactly what makes them all the same.” Inside these self-drawn chalk lines lays the world two sisters, Blonde and Brunette, facing the world together through parental abandonment, arranged marriage, and the struggles of growing up and growing into yourself. Throughout their co-dependent life, their favorite pastime is a dangerous game they have invented: the one who is holding the butterfly hairpin can ask the other one to do anything.
A poignant exploration of life, love, and loss, Emanuele Aldrovandi’s “Butterflies,” making its United States premiere currently at The Tank through June 8, unfolds over the next ninety minutes as a rollercoaster of blunt dialogue mashed with symbolic theatricality, a masterclass in heartbreaking coming of age vignettes.
In contrast to its crystal-clear, refined theatrical language, the play unfolds with an unpredictable, almost mysterious structure, while its characters' direct and effective dialogue paints a universally touching picture. There’s Blonde, the older, practical sister who dreams of “emancipation from emancipation,” checking the boxes from arranged marriage (“I could only marry someone that hasn’t disappointed me yet, meaning someone I don’t know.”) to children to familial obligations above personal fulfilment. Her foil and companion is her sister Brunette, a spunky photographer who lives in the moment and flies free.
Through the course of the play we see each’s personal growth and sisterly love play side by side and sometimes against each other; however, their self-discovery is not always accompanied by greater understanding of the other person, as self-image and priorities shift and swap as they grow older. The sisters are so entwined that reviewing one without the other would be impossible; Annie Watkins and Danielle Sacks are mesmerizing stage partners, making it impossible to look away from the action even as their dares to each other escalate to deadly and devastating effects.
Aiding the storytelling is a versatile, deceptively bare set design by Sarah Edkins, populating the girls’ world with miniature doll-like furniture emphasizing their liminal space transforming easily from house to playroom to doctor’s office to somewhere and anywhere in between. The actresses jump between playing Blonde and Brunette and playing multiple other supporting characters, aided by costumes by Polina Roytman. The ease with which the girls take on different identities through simple props and costumes can be comedic, although by the end of the play it draws further attention to a deeper connection between all human beings that is unavoidable yet mysterious.
What do we owe to strangers? To family? To each other? To ourselves? An exploration of self-imposed choices versus free will versus blind faith creeps through every aspect of the play, perhaps most emphasized by the girls when they must portray their own despised father and step-mother who have abandoned them, and also later when Brunette handles the puppet of her own child. Done through comedic and stylized puppetry, these are two bookends to the girls’ lives—parents and children—exemplifying their own struggles with parenthood, abandonment, and loyalty to family. This play gives no easy answers, and it’s tragic ending will leave you devastated yet somehow unsurprised, as the girls execute masterful arcs of growth for their characters. While a butterfly usually symbolizes transformations, the two main characters of this play exhibit artificial transformations, mirroring their artificial butterfly hairpin; while they do grow older and shift priorities, they end up facing the same tale as old as time struggles they had condemned their parents for, with difficult familial decisions pitting “self” versus “selfish.”
A beautifully written, acted, and directed US premiere, “Butterflies” will leave you breathless and devastated at the lengths the human heart will go to protect what it loves and thinks is “right.”
“Butterflies” by Emanuele Aldrovandi, translated by Carlotta Brentan, is directed by Jay Stern. “Butterflies” stars Annie Watkins and Danielle Sacks.
The design team includes Sarah Edkins (Set Design), Kyle Soble (Lighting Design), and Polina Roytman (Costume Design).
“Butterflies” runs at The Tank (312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues) through June 8. Tickets for “Butterflies” can be purchased at https://www.thetanknyc.org/. Run time is approximately 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photo of Danielle Sacks and Annie Watkins by Tom Henning.