“My drag isn’t a costume I use to hide in,” famed performance artists and playwright Taylor Mac says, “it’s exposing what I look like on the inside.” And the same could be said for the five characters from the Philippines who are the focus of Philip Himberg’s Paper Dolls, which is getting its US premiere by Mosaic Theater Company.
Himberg’s Paper Dolls—billed as a play with (karaoke) music—is an adaptation of Tomer Heymann’s 2006 documentary of the same name, which followed the lives of five Filipino caregivers taking care of Hasidic men in Tel Aviv by day and performing as a drag queens at night.
The events of the play take place in 2004, during the Second Intifada, after hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers had been expelled from the Israel. We first meet Jiorgio (a precocious-verging-on-bratty Jon Norman Schneider), who’s contracted through an agency to join his protective older brother, Chiqui (Kevin Shen) in Tel Aviv. Once there, he befriends the rest of the Paper Dolls—the warm and wise Salvatore “Sally” (Ariel Felix), the choreographer Cheska (Rafael Sebastian), and the larger-than-life Zhan (a hilarious Evan D’Angeles)—who are to be the subject of a man named Etai’s (John Bambery) next film.
While a lot of fun comes in watching the excellent yet decidedly DIY song-and-dance numbers, which mash up traditional Yiddish songs with pop diva classics, and the snarky interactions between the Dolls, there are also many serious and important topics woven into the narrative. The Dolls, in their banter-filled way, have deep conversations about gender identity and expression, and how to navigate the conservative community in which they work. This is embodied in the relationship between Sally and Chaim (Christopher Bloch), the elderly man whom Sally cares for. Chaim was slow to accept Sally at first, but through her loyalty and dedication, she wins him over and opens his mind.
The precarious situation the Dolls are in—their ability to stay in the country being tied to keeping their employers happy in order to keep their visas—is also a major theme and source of tension that resonates in today’s America. In this way, Paper Dolls is like Dream Girls meets To Wong Foo, but set against a backdrop of suicide bombings, xenophobia, and economic anxiety.
closes April 29, 2018
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Under the excellent direction of Mark Brokaw, the serious socioeconomic themes are balanced and tempered by moments of genuine levity and humor. J.M. Rebudal’s choreography shines against James Kronzer’s muted scenery, further emphasizing the interplay between two different worlds.
The experience of being a member of an American audience watching Israel as seen through the eyes of immigrants from the Philipines is one that’s disorienting in the best way possible. Ultimately, the themes of acceptance, compassion, pride, and understanding are just as relevant in 2018 Washington, DC, as they were in 2004 Tel Aviv—and the fact that they’re wrapped in glittery, colorful paper only makes them that much more enjoyable to take in.
Paper Dolls by Philip Himberg. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Based on the film by Tomer Heymann. Featuring: Ariel Felix, Kevin Shen, Evan D’Angeles, Rafael Sebastian, Jon Norman Schneider, John Bamberry, Christopher Bloch, Lise Bruneau, Elan Zafir, Brice Guerriere, Chris Daileader, and Dallas Milholland. Choreographer: J.M. Rebudal. Music Director: William Knowles. Vocal Arrangements: Howard Breitbart. Scenery: James Kronzer. Lighting: Brittany Shemuga. Costumes: Frank Labovitz. Sound: David Lamont Wilson. Projections: Sarah Tundermann. Props: Michelle Elwyn. Assistant Director: Jennifer Knight. Dramaturg: Otis Cortez Ramsay-Zoe. Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva. Assistant Stage Manager: Cindy King. Produced as part of the 2018 Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival by Mosaic Theater of DC . Reviewed by John Bavoso.