Theater: Floating evocatively in a young woman's reverie

February 22, 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.

Into the Dollhouse

conceived and directed by Carmen C. Wong. Set, Levia C. Lew; costumes, Melanie Clark; sound, Travis D. Flower; technical direction, Niell DuVal; dramaturgy, Otis Ramsey- Zoe. About 55 minutes. Through Sunday at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Visit www.flashpoint.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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