Editors' pick

Into the Dollhouse

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Editorial Review

Review: Welcome to Barbie's world
By Peter Marks
Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

While Shakespeare held forth on the seven ages of man, Carmen C. Wong zeroes in on the growth stages of womankind in "Into the Dollhouse," her interactive contemplation of what gets filtered through the consciousness of a girl in a world governed so thoroughly by external appearance.

This soothing new performance piece, at Flashpoint's play- incubating Mead Theatre Lab through Sunday, cocoons an audience in the music and imagery of popular culture, the kind that forever seals its influence by accompanying adolescents into adulthood. The Mead space has been turned for the occasion into Wong's personal "dollhouse," with dozens of pieces of toddler and doll clothing suspended on wires from the ceiling, and other artifacts of a young girl's life - "Archie" comic books, a TV blaring vintage variety shows - configured in the space as if they were exhibits at the Smithsonian.

Spectators are welcomed into the Mead Lab and invited to look around before dancers Carrie Monger, Stefanie Quinones Bass and Jennifer Rivers and actress Nicola Daval perform a series of gauzy vignettes. The effect is both familiar and mysterious, as the players explore their own bodies and sway and undulate to hits such as the Carpenters' "Close to You" and John Denver's "Annie's Song." (Musicians Travis D. Flower and Emmett Williams provide a languorous accompaniment.)

Wong's Banished? Productions was the mischief-maker behind "A Tactile Dinner" and its sequel, "Tactile Dinner Car," a pair of performance pieces that provided playgoers with a bizarre, multimedia alternative to fine dining. "Into the Dollhouse" moves Wong a step or two closer to conventional narrative, in the sense that for this new nonlinear work, an audience member participates only as much as he or she wants.

The sensation here is that Wong wants to take us back in memory rather than, as in the "Dinner" pieces, disturb our reality, in those cases with a series of off-putting food courses concocted from odd ingredients. The dancers greet us in costumes by Melanie Clark evocative of shopworn female identities. One wears a bad blond wig and a dull housedress and apron; the others are in bathing suit and evening gown, as if they were beauty pageant wannabes. They engage us genially but coolly, more like ghosts than hosts.

Sure enough, the screen of an old TV set flashes to life, with a tape of the crowning of the 1986 Miss Universe. (While the coronation unfolds, the dancers quiz playgoers - who organize their chairs around the perimeter of the black-box theater - about the capital cities of the pageant contestants' home countries.)

"Into the Dollhouse" is for those with a predilection for theater that wanders out of bounds. (There is one brief moment of tame, tasteful nudity.) Wong's intriguing metier is performance that's more associative than demonstrative: You pass through the permeable layer of Wong's artifice and into her warm imagination. Clocking in at under an hour, the visit is just the right length.

Preview: 'Dollhouse' redefines home
By Jess Righthand
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

"Into the Dollhouse," Banished? Productions' new show, begins the minute audience members enter the theater, where they are met by about 120 white girls' dresses, starched and standing straight up, as if being worn by an invisible person.

The first 15 minutes or so of "Dollhouse" at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab are dedicated exclusively to the theatergoers, allowing them to mill about, interact with the performers, perhaps touch the dresses and select a place to sit.

"The dresses are symbolic to me," says director Carmen C. Wong. "Everybody so far has been going, 'Ah, they freak me out!' But to me they represent shells of former self, the way a butterfly leaves its cocoon and that sense of having metamorphosed into a new person."

The hour-long show - three vignettes about women with music, dance and spoken word interwoven - has much to do with personal evolution, the concept of "home" and nostalgia. The dollhouse of the title, and the theater space itself, represents a physical manifestation of these themes.

This production builds on a Banished? piece from 2010 that featured dancer Carrie Monger as a kind of Stepford wife who realizes the illusion of perfection she works so hard to maintain is unsustainable. (Monger plays a similar character in one of these vignettes, but now she has a foil, a little girl who can't wait to grow up.)

From that starting point, writing the show involved research and extensive collaboration with the cast. Wong was chiefly inspired by artist Meredith Monk's performance piece "Education of the Girl Child" and playwright Charles Mee's "Salome" (some of the script is actually taken from that text). From there, the dancers choreographed much of their own movement, and the script evolved organically to a place where it felt natural for the actors.

"I've been in other devised pieces where it's a lot of sitting at the table and everybody's talking ideas, and there are some fabulous ideas that come out, but none get used because then one person kind of has to take charge, and then that person sort of makes all the choices," Wong says. "Whereas, I feel like in this case it's sort of just creating a boundary, and telling everybody, 'Just stay in there, and play the game.' This is where it's fun because there's this level of improvisation or creation that takes place."

There is also an element of personal experience in the show. One character is based on a memory of Wong's grandmother in Singapore getting dressed to go out at night.

Still, the director says, "I didn't want this to be like, my grandmother, but the idea that everybody has seen this happen at some point. And the way you put on your bra, how do you learn it, and was it because of some other woman in your life telling you how to do it? We then played with that as part of the choreography, too. Different ways of putting on a bra, different rituals we have as women. What do we put on our faces? And is this sense of beautification nourishing us from the outside in, or is it also something that we should consider a bit superficial?"

Having grown up in Singapore, spent time in Europe and lived in Washington for seven years, Wong says the show touches on the idea of creating a home via the imagination. Ultimately, though, her goal is to present her experience not as unique but as universally relatable to women and men alike.

"I personally never had a dollhouse," she says. "But it's something that many people never had. The dollhouse stands in for some kind of place, some kind of childhood that you feel like you might want to re-create for yourself. We remember ourselves a certain way, and we remember our childhood a certain way, and then it turns out it's either so far from the truth or not far at all. . . . It's about creating a place where these memories are stored."