Saturday, April 14, 2018

Flaws Make it Beautiful: Mosaic Theater Company's Paper Dolls

Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Philip Himberg’s Paper Dolls is not perfect, but that’s what makes it work.

Set in Tel Aviv in 2004, Paper Dolls centers around a group of Filipino immigrants who work as caregivers to elderly Orthodox Jewish men by day and by night work as a drag entertainment group called—you guessed it—The Paper Dolls. This “play with songs” differs from a traditional musical in that the songs don’t advance the story; they are, however, an integral part of making this story come alive. In moments where the Himberg’s script allowed the pace to lull (such as a long backstage discussion with all the Dolls after we see them perform for the first time), I missed the music that defines these characters. When that music returns, it is all the more special for the wait.

Although the play was written before the most recent election (it premiered in London in 2013), the thematic material and images appear to pull from the daily headlines. The Dolls are faced with concerns of blending with a new cultural environment while still holding on to their own identity. Characters talk about walls, both literal and metaphoric, to illustrate the fear of “the other”. When one says that the people in the country built a very big wall, they are met with the response “A wall will not be the answer”—a sentence with massive resonance in recent months.

Himberg allows his play to drift into syrupy sentimentality, at times resembling an after-school special more than a dramatic work, but the performances from the cast force you to care about these people. The actors that make up the Paper Dolls—Evan D’Angeles, Ariel Felix, Jon Norman Scheider, Rafael Sebastian, and Kevin Shen—perform so naturally together that their loving behavior is a foregone conclusion. These trans performers are family—in one case, literally—and their affection for one another is evident in their actions (such as in one moment where one willingly places themselves in danger for the sake of another). The rest of the cast does their part to iron out problems with the script (Lise Bruneau’s Adina must change her entire perception of Ariel Felix’s Sally between scenes with no clear indication why), and it is seeing them wrestle with the text that makes their victories all the more satisfying to watch.

The two-story set design by James Kronzer resembles the exterior of a tenement structure with its worn-down walls, metal railings, and barred windows. The open design along with the clever use of fire escape staircase on wheels allows director Brokaw to keep the downtime between scenes to a minimum, pushing the pace to a satisfying clip. Costumes by Frank Labovitz are a gratifying mix of average day-to-day clothing and spectacularly designed show outfits. Labovitz has created many of the costumes for The Dolls by hand out of recycled newsprint, a visual representation of their fragility, innovativeness, and determination.

Paper Dolls appears determined to let its cracks show. The script has its problems, lines are flubbed and dropped, and the singing sometimes is out of sync, but it doesn’t matter. These imperfections harken back to the gritty nature of the beginnings of back-room drag. These imperfections show the cracks in these people and their lives. These imperfections create a show that feels hand-crafted rather than machine processed. In an artistic world that rewards paragons above all else, Paper Dolls succeeds because it is imperfect.

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