On Saturday, the last day of their five-night residency at the Lucille Lortel theater, the conjoined Neville twins, a.k.a. Evelyn Evelyn, woke up in two different beds. To be precise, Amanda Palmer (the singer who plays Evelyn Evelyn’s right hand, arm, shoulder, leg and head) woke up at downtown legend John Cameron Mitchell’s apartment in the West Village. Seattle songwriter Jason Webley, Evelyn Evelyn’s left half, woke up in the apartment of a girl who’d videotaped the previous night’s show. Right now he has trouble remembering her name. Laura? Lindsey? “You’re not coming across all that great,” deadpans Palmer. “It was platonic,” meekly protests Webley.
The Evelyn Evelyn project, nearing the end of its inaugural tour, takes the cabaret-punk sensibilities of Palmer’s more famous Dresden Dolls to their apex. It is a postmodern sideshow act that comes with an elaborate backstory (the conjoined sisters’ gruesome birth, their rearing in a chicken coop, etc.), long stretches of scripted banter, props, an emcee, and a high-wire improv section where Palmer and Webley answer the audience’s questions one word at a turn. The songs themselves — which the duo play, incredibly, on a single piano, accordion, and guitar — should have been an afterthought. The weird thing is, they are not: Palmer, who’s never split songwriting duties with anyone before, and serial collaborator Webley turned out to be a fantastic, Tin Pan Alley–style team.
They know it, too. So now, at Lucille Lortel, between 4:30 and 5 p.m. — the last free 30 minutes they will have tonight — both are desperately trying to finish a brand-new song. Palmer and Webley have got themselves into the running to write a big-ticket Broadway musical adaptation of a film of a book, and this is their audition piece. Jason sits onstage, pecking at a MacBook. Amanda is upstairs in the makeup room, doing the same. They’re writing lyrics first, two different verses in two different rhythms that they’re hoping to glue together with a chorus. Around five, Palmer comes down, and Webley reads her his verse. “It’s not very good,” he warns, and begs off writing until tomorrow. “I’m scheduled up the ass tomorrow,” says Palmer, the dominant twin. “Let me go away until you get something that you like.” Her verse is twice as long, and a tongue-twister. “You have to imagine it in like a nasty, nasty, nasty English accent,” she explains. “Like a Ren[naissance] Fair barmaid accent.” Palmer bangs out a rough rhythm on her Kurzweil electric piano, which is amended to read “Kurt Weill.” Webley wants pizza. Palmer wants to take another fifteen minutes to finish up. They take the fifteen minutes.
The song doesn’t come together after all, so the duo break for food. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next, so I solicit advice from everybody,” Palmer says around six, over a plate of shrimp summer rolls at a Vietnamese joint across the street. “Everything you’ve been doing since the Dresden Dolls has been theater,” chimes in Webley. “God, it’s true. And I’m doing Cabaret next.” (In the Boston production, hometown girl Palmer will play not Sally Bowles, but the androgynous emcee.) The Dresden Dolls started out around 2003, when the average East Coast band was banging out eighth-note impressions of Television and Joy Division. Since then, the scene caught up with Palmer: The freak show went mainstream. Lady Gaga lists the Dresden Dolls as an “influence” on her MySpace page. This seems to be pushing Palmer away from punk and toward purer theater. Well, this and — as she freely admits — “I don’t want to tour so much anymore.”
“Tori Amos shouted me out at Bonnaroo,” Palmer brags to Webley. Just about the biggest name on a small but very devoted steampunk circuit, not to mention the wife of cult novelist Neil Gaiman, Palmer still seems giddy about the crowd she now runs with. “Peter Murphy [of Bauhaus] brought me a bag of … ” Palmer holds a theatrical pause: “Frankincense! How fucking Goth is that?” Planning out the rest of the night, she leaves twenty minutes between the end of the set and the fan autograph session for “all the fancy people” who might drop by the show. At 6:30, the doors of the theater open; there’s already a sizable line outside. Palmer and Webley sneak in through a side door.
Amanda’s assistant Beth arrives, a bespectacled girl with a camera. They blaze through next week’s agenda, including “merch at the Bethesda show,” a “lawyer meeting,” and a “late dinner with Neil.” Some rock stars require handlers; Palmer sounds like she needs summer associates. She does a series of vocal exercises while reading her Twitter feed.
From downstairs comes the racket of the opening act, an old friend named Sxip Shirey, who entertains the crowd with a kind of noise-rock clown performance. The fancy-people report comes in: In the audience tonight are the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson and artist Cynthia von Bueler. Palmer’s ex, Michael, is coming too. John Cameron Mitchell is sending a stretch limo to take Palmer and Webley to an after-party in Brooklyn.
Minutia smoothed out, the duo begin transforming into Evelyn Evelyn. Palmer easily strips to her lingerie, within the range of about three cameras. Webley sneaks out with a razor and a tub of shaving cream. When he returns, both put on identical skullcaps, black wigs, burgundy headbands, lipstick, and rouge. “Don’t forget your bra,” Palmer dramatically whispers. Webley gets out a pre-filled brassiere, and she helps him with the clasp. Next comes a petticoat built for two, a massive skirt made from what looks like a medieval tapestry, and a matching top with two sleeves and two head holes. Once inside the Evelyn Evelyn suit, the duo touchingly groom each other, patting down flyaway wig hair. The final touch is a pink purse. The resultant freak clambers down the stairs, supported by tour manager Eric, and heads toward the stage.
The show itself is a multipart affair. Sxip, the opening act, has now become Sxiphisto, the sideshow proprietor forcing the demure twins to perform. The main act culminates with the twins shooting Sxiphisto and joining each other in a feathery cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” (Palmer, a first-class caustic wit, has found the one possible context in which the song’s chorus sounds hopeful.) Then Evelyn Evelyn totter off and return as Webley, who does a few Tom Waits–ian screamers solo, and Palmer, who offers two hits, a confessional ukulele song about being dropped by her label and a gorgeous cover of Radiohead’s “High & Dry.”
Then things get really interesting. For the final song of the evening, Palmer and Webley unite onstage once more for an old drinking ditty. This time, Palmer has an idea: What if Evelyn Evelyn actually show up — played by someone else — halfway through the song? The plan is a classic Andy Kaufman–Tony Clifton gambit; the only kink is, it requires two volunteers who are already backstage. Palmer’s ex-boyfriend Michael is one. I am the other.
As the last notes of “High and Dry” hang in the raptured air, Michael Michael become Evelyn Evelyn backstage. We’re the shorthand version of the twins: no pancake makeup, no stuffed bras, just wigs, lipstick, and the costume. The skirt and the top are incredibly hot, the faux hair assaults my eyes. The sheer physical dedication that goes into doing an entire set as Evelyn Evelyn is beginning to hit home. On Eric’s cue, walking in a kind of three-legged two-step, we head toward the stage lights.
The next few minutes are a blur, not least because Palmer orders the entire audience to spin in place twelve times while looking up — “to get fucked up right now,” she explains, for a proper performance of the drinking song. The twins spin, too. After the tenth spin, the faux Evelyn Evelyn are in serious danger of toppling over. The audience seems to eat it up. One last group bow. Show’s over.
It’s about 10 p.m. now, postmortem time. “I felt you were trying to trip me up on the Chalice of Knowledge segment,” says Webley. There’s a brief discussion of embarrassing “superfans” — people who shout “I love you” in quiet moments. Tonight had just one. Outside, a crowd of about a hundred autograph-seekers has gathered, and Palmer plunges into it headfirst, posing, hugging, clasping, clapping. Many of the fans are young girls, 11 to 13 years old, with chaperones. “I want to thank you so much for having all-ages shows,” shouts an adoring male teen before slinking away, aglow. Gifts pour in: a DVD of the film Tarnation handed over by the author; a handcrafted stuffed doll of Evelyn Evelyn; a toy piano. (Tomorrow, Eric will have to lug the latter to the post office, to mail it to Palmer’s home. From the tone of the discussion it will trigger later, it is clearly not the first toy piano given to Palmer by a fan. Nor the tenth.) During all of this, Webley is largely invisible.
At ten to 11, the stretch limo has arrived. Palmer has a new idea: They will go to the after-party as the twins. If Webley has any objections, he’s not voicing them, and the duo don the suit once again. During the short walk from the theater to the limo, Evelyn Evelyn turn a few heads, but only a few. Christopher Street has seen freakier things.
The after-party is at the Satellite Lounge, a surprisingly vanilla Williamsburg venue with pinball and beer. Palmer has a new friend, a young Mexican pop star named Juan Son, brought in by John Cameron Mitchell. She’s not drinking much. Her next morning is all booked up: a video shoot for a cover of Radiohead’s “Idioteque.” Palmer is staying in Park Slope with an old friend, songwriter Alina Simone, where she is heading now. As for Webley, he doesn’t actually have a place to stay. That’s how he travels. “But I have options,” he assures me, grinning, before disappearing back into the crowd.