Big dreams start small. Just think of that dollhouse you had growing up. Inside that diminutive frame is a multiverse of stories. In a child’s hands, a new version of reality is brought to life every day. For the dolls inside, life must be as disorienting as it is exciting: the days and nights fly by in mere moments, and the play-acted rules of time and space change constantly. If you were the one in doll clothing — the soft clay of someone else’s dreams — would you see your world as infinitely open, or fatally small?
A dollhouse has both qualities — it’s a deep, crowded container for all our little dreams. But how our hopes grow over time — and whether we rise to touch them — is harder to explain. Can you take a thousand scraps from your youth and weave them into a single, clear portrait of the adult you imagined you’d become, or is finding your future more fraught?
These are the questions that Banished? Productions is teasing out in their intelligent and compelling new performance piece, Into the Dollhouse, at the Mead Theatre Lab. Through dance, speech, music, and immersive scenic design, this group of four performers and two musicians brings us a discordant tone poem on girlhood, womanhood, and imaginative memory.
At times dread can feel like a tight-packed panic; at others, it’s more of a vast, lonely silence. It seems a tall order — even a contradictory one — for a show to capture both sensations, but this world-premiere piece does just that with eerie precision. Like a dollhouse, the small blackbox theatre space is alternately claustrophobic and wide open for play.
This strange dissonance comes in part from the seating pattern: audience members bring their own chairs into the room and sit wherever they like, which leads everyone to seat themselves comfortably in their own area. Rather than a block of spectators, we end up a room full of people alone. And yet it’s far from empty in there. The world before us — and behind us, and under us, and over our heads — is rife with the remnants of innocent years past.
From the ceiling, small cotton and fleece outfits for dolls and children hang in rigid, starched formations like frozen birds. Archie comics, cassette tapes, music boxes, toys, kitchenware, and a flickering TV lie strewn across the floor and collected in small piles. On a platform in one corner, musicians Travis D. Flower and Emmett Williams riff with live instruments on top of an atmospheric sound design. It’s a busy environment full of lost bits of childhood, but it’s also a ghostly and dislocated place, like an echo chamber that’s gone hoarse over time.
This feeling of frayed identity comes to life mainly through the speeches and movements of performers Carrie Monger, Jennifer Rivers and Stefanie Quinones Bass, who worked closely with director and Banished? co-founder Carmen C. Wong to devise the show. The sequences they’ve created — among them, a young daughter crawling gleefully across the floor, a housewife whisking frantically at the liquid in a metal bowl, a grinning girl crooning oldies into a stand-up mic — all capture meaningful moments and potent emotions even though the context is thoroughly blurred. The story being told here is not a linear or literal one. It’s the tone of these women’s lives — the rhythm and shape of their growing pains — that make waves.
Much of Into The Dollhouse evokes mid-20th-century suburban American life, particularly into the group’s choices for costuming and music. And yet the show still feels not only timeless but genuinely current. Certainly this speaks to the ongoing intensity of our feelings about how we grow up, who we turn out to be, and how we reconcile the images into which we try to fit our children with the very real, very different people they become.
To further catalogue the ingredients of this theatrical romp would be unfair, especially given the element of surprise in its several efforts — whimsical and harmless — to get the audience directly involved in the telling of the piece. You’ll have to stop by yourself to see how Into The Dollhouse goes about drawing us in. The revealing peek they offer at some of our most simple, perpetual behaviors — and their strange, sad undercurrents — is worth the trip through the little front door.
Into The Dollhouse
Concept and Direction by Carmen C. Wong
Produced by Banished? Productions
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: Approx 1 hour without intermission