nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
August 17, 2009
I haven't seen such a smart, funny, beautiful, fresh, and touching one-man show in a while!
Michael Phillis, who wrote and performs Dolls, manages to create a unique world that somehow sums up the human experience without having human characters on stage. The story of Frank—an adult who has been collecting dolls since he was a child—is told through the "representatives" on different shelves of his collection. Scene by scene, details from Frank's past are revealed, as we gradually understand his difficult relationship with his mom, his awakened sexuality, his being unfairly punished, his depression and potato-salad addiction, generally his vulnerabilities and ultimately his unhappiness.
The show succeeds in being extremely funny—I literally couldn't stop laughing—while offering a tender, tragicomic exploration of humanity in general and Frank's life in particular. All the dolls resemble Frank, are reflections of/on his personality, and "are or will become a little bit gay." Phillis is a wonderfully versatile performer, who impersonates the various types of dolls and action figures with humor and specificity.
The main action takes place on the day after Christmas, as newly arrived dolls are put through an orientation by the veterans whose status is defined by which tier they occupy on the toy shelf. On the top shelf are the antique collectibles, on the second shelf are the action figures, while the third shelf contains fashion dolls like Ken and Barbie and their generic knockoffs. Then there is a bottom shelf and the drawers full of secrets, where we can find a mixture of tchotchkes, Happy Meal toys, cereal-box prizes, broken dolls, and the "inarticulates"—considered the lowest class in the doll hierarchy. Plus a reclusive wedding-cake figurine that hints of Frank's missing dad.
Upper Shelf is ruled by a beautiful Southern porcelain doll that belonged to Frank's mom. She's a privileged sheltered "belle," too well aware of her top-shelf status and fragile yet strong nature that make her a self-proclaimed president of the collection. Describing themselves through the details they know of Frank's life and the actions they witnessed, the representatives of each shelf reveal something personal about the owner of the collection and something socio-political about mankind. For instance, the hilarious and generally accepted creationism theory called "factorialism"—for all they know, the dolls were all made in a factory—and some incisive and insightful comments on race, class, and disability politics.
Crisply and imaginatively directed by Andrew Nance, Dolls is a show worth seeing again and again, until all the secrets hidden in the "drawer" of a gesture, glance, or word are fully revealed to you. A brilliant performer, a wonderful text, strong direction, a powerful message—what else is there?