Paula Vogel's The Mineola Twins begins with a recommendation. "There are two ways to do this play: 1. With good wigs. 2. With bad wigs," Vogel writes. "Personally, I prefer the second way."
Profile Theatre has a similar perspective, apparently. The company's virtual production of the play is rife with beautifully awful hairdos, including a curly coiffure that looks more like lemon cake than hair.
That's how it should be. The Mineola Twins is a saga of twin sisters trying on identities and ideologies like costumes in a Halloween shop. Some fit, some don't, but Vogel's vision remains consistent. By weaving the lives of the siblings through some of the political upheavals that convulsed the U.S. from the '50s to the'80s, she transforms her characters into a mythic metaphor for a nation at war with itself.
Even without COVID-19 in the equation, The Mineola Twins is an epically complex play to produce thanks to its frequent time jumps and a demanding dual lead role. Yet Profile's production coheres thanks to director Josh Hecht's risky and ingenious decision to film the actors in front of green screens and insert them into virtual sets. The results are mesmerizing in a way that suits the patchwork quality of the play.
The Mineola Twins stars Miriam Schwartz as the title twins, Myrna and Myra, who we meet in 1952. They're in high school, but Myrna is already planning to marry Jim (Jennifer Lanier), her 22-year-old boyfriend, who is sleeping with Myra. This storyline plays like a bedroom farce, but it's part of a classic Vogel strategy for maximum narrative impact: Soothe the audience with comedy, then strike them with tragedy.
The scope of the play's satire comes into focus when the story leaps to 1969 for some bank shenanigans, then makes a beeline for 1989. By the end of the '80s, Myrna has become a right-wing radio personality and written a book called Profiles in Chastity, while Myra works for Planned Parenthood and is married to a woman. With their places on the political spectrum solidified, Vogel unleashes the two sisters on each other in a climax that both tickles the funny bone and troubles the mind.
As the play progresses, Myrna's moral corruption deepens. "I listen to your radio show every week!" declares her nephew Ben (Blake Stone). "You're not afraid of our legacy as Anglo-Saxons. That's what we're taught in school—to be ashamed of being white males. We get hit on the head about the Holocaust and date rape, and I hate being in high school! What about all the Germans who died!"
Myrna's approval of Ben's bigoted tirade is terrifying ("there is a God!" she cries), but Vogel doesn't want us to get comfortable unequivocally booing or cheering her characters. How can we completely hate Myrna when we've seen her at the mercy of the creepy, oafish Jim? We can't, and Vogel knows it. The moral ambiguity of The Mineola Twins puts you exactly where she wants you—discombobulated and incapable of seeing anyone in the play as less than human.
Like Myrna and Myra's turbulent relationship, the look of the production takes some getting used to. Choppy lines often separate the actors from their surroundings, creating the impression of a collage come to life—an effect that is both eerie and cool. The play might have been more impactful onstage, but an in-person performance would have deprived us of some astounding virtual images, like Myrna and Myra under matching yellow blankets, floating in a void of pure darkness.
As the twins grow, they take turns playing the conformist and the rebel, albeit in drastically different ways. Myrna dreams of domestic coziness, but eventually becomes a lonely criminal on an anti-abortion crusade. Myra wants to be a countercultural revolutionary, but falls in love with Sarah (Lanier), the most conventional and psychologically stable character in the play.
It's arguable that Myrna and Myra are heavily distorted reflections of one another who exist in a state of balance—between right and left, red and blue, regression and progression. Their combative bond could be described as necessary, inevitable or vulgar, but for better or worse, there's another word for it: American.
SEE IT: The Mineola Twins streams at profiletheatre.org/the-mineola-twins/ through March 21.