Michelle and Lily Drexler, two versatile local actors who just happen to be identical twins, have in recent years acquired a few comical avatars.
They were Florinda and Lucinda when they played Cinderella’s two evil stepsisters in San Francisco Playhouse’s 2014 production of “Into the Woods,” and they reinvented the self-involved characters on Instagram as a satirical take on the Kardashians. They appeared as a version of their musical selves in the two-woman “A Very Drexler Cabaret,” which they created with director Steven Shear and performed a few years ago at Feinstein’s in San Francisco before taking it to the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York.
Now there’s the hilarious “The Simpleton’s Guide to Success,” in which the sisters transform themselves into hapless aspiring twin actors Molly and Lena in a series of five 10-minute episodes that comprise a mockumentary. The show premiered at the Fort Mason Flix drive-on Feb. 18 and is now streaming on YouTube.
“I started writing on the [New York] subway, and this series just kind of came out of me, I don’t know how,” says Lily, who ended up scribbling the first three episodes, also on the subway, before collaborating with her sister to finish the script.
The Drexler twins have always been performance-oriented. They grew up in San Francisco in an artsy family, performed for fun as kids and went to Lowell High School. Early on, they were taken to the seminal Pickle Family Circus, and they remember seeing a live performance of “Phantom of the Opera” when it came to town.
Always close, they separated for college, both going into undergraduate fine arts drama programs, Michelle at Emerson College in Boston, Lily at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “We intentionally wanted to have more independence,” explains Michelle, “and to be able to foster separate identities. Being labeled as twins as teenagers, such formative years, made it hard for both of us, shoehorned into an identity as ‘the twins.’”
After college, Michelle returned to the Bay Area and now lives in Oakland and freelances as an actor and teaching artist. When the pandemic closed theaters, she’d been working backstage as a child wrangler for the upcoming musical “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at the Curran (she’s on furlough now and hopes the show will be onstage this summer).
Lily stayed in New York for a while and now lives in San Francisco; for her day job, she’s a recruiter for an IT company.
For “The Simpleton’s Guide,” the feckless twins Molly and Lena receive very precise instructions from beyond the grave, initially in the form of a video from their dead grandmother (local actress and singer Maureen McVerry), followed by a series of titled missives, starting with “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” each one delivered in a startling and mysterious way.
It turns out Grandma has provided money and an apartment for them on Mott Street in New York and given them a few weeks — until her own impending memorial service — to succeed as actresses there. They must, she explains, carry on the fabled family tradition. No time to lose.
The ways in which the game but clueless twins attempt to find acting jobs are comically cringe-worthy, their exploits filmed by their overenthusiastic Cousin Saul (Steven Thomas).
It wasn’t until a few years after Lily first began writing the script that the Drexlers shared it with Bay Area colleagues and recruited Andrew Finch to collaborate on turning it into a film. A host of local actors signed on to play various roles, and the Drexlers co-directed.
“We know each other well and could kind of coach each other when we needed to,” explains Lily. “We trusted each other’s judgment and there’s no animosity when we give each other notes.
“We did it guerrilla style,” she adds. “Not a lot of storyboarding or preplanning, everything was out of pocket. People volunteered their time to help. … the fact that it’s a mockumentary, like ‘The Office’ or ‘Spinal Tap,’ makes it a little more theater-like. We don’t have multi-camera cuts, like a film.”
They improvised at times along the way; says Lily: “We’ve always sought to capture the natural banter between us. Our trained actor [selves] come in when we have to re-create it in a non-improv setting. The core to our comedy is coming up with stuff we think is funny, even if it’s one joke, and building around it.”
That natural banter appears to come easily to them, as does the process of collaboration. “If one person is having stress or anxiety, the other naturally will take the other role to counterbalance,” says Michelle. “Our Mom said even from babies we’d take turns having tantrums.”
“I think our relationship has gone through phases,” muses Lily. “But I think right now we’re in a very harmonious phase. … I think we’ve gotten even closer during the pandemic. Michelle’s theater stuff has been shut down and we have more time to hang out.”
What’s the future for Molly and Lena, the aspiring pair who sprang from the fertile creative minds of Lily and Michelle? The Drexlers have been developing it for a pitch on a larger series, perhaps serialized for TV, or streaming. Lily sees “The Simpleton’s Guide” as a “little joy and silliness” that seems just right for the world at this time.
IF YOU WATCH
The Simpleton’s Guide to Success
Starring: Lily Drexler, Michelle Drexler, Maureen McVerry, Steven Thomas
Written by: Lily Drexler, Michelle Drexler,
Directed by: Andrew Finch, Lily Drexler, Michelle Drexler