Dollhouse was the spookiest show I’ve ever loved. I don’t like horror, and most things described as haunted are enough to get me to stay home. But when I heard that Simone Pin, a POC-run production company, had conceived a “hauntingly beautiful” Southern gothic burlesque show featuring technical choreography and diverse performers, I had to see it. The result was so elegantly creepy and so smoothly executed that my head just about fell off. More on that later.
Promotion for Dollhouse promised “a dose of sinister, a dash of grotesque, and a whole lotta sin.” Adra Boo, as Mama of the Dollhouse, supported these claims in her first monologue. She laid down house rules, introduced her dolls, and generally offered heart and soul as an elegant southern Mama with an air of charming, spooky mysticism. She warned us that her dollhouse contained a “lotta bad tings.”
We’d already gotten a taste of the dark side. The show opened with three ghostly dancers creeping out from the stage onto and over each row of seats, spider-crawling between our shoulders, brushing our ears. A deep narrating voice was difficult to hear over a throbbing soundtrack, but no matter. We didn’t need to understand the words to appreciate the first dance number, which involved a group of dolls slinking through some hair-raising and finely-tuned mask work. By the time a nightgown-clad doll duo (Shay Simone and Annya Pin) brandished straight razors while they undressed to “Bad Things” by Jace Everett in an attic, I was hooked.
And then the treats just kept coming. Choreography by Shay Simone was one true pleasure. Jennifer Mealani spun through triple pirouettes and slipped into big splits to Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend.” Lindy Lou shuddered and smashed her body through excellent floorwork in a dark twisted prayer number. TAQUEET$! popped and locked and slithered as a graceful and grotesque zombie whose head FELL OFF INTO THEIR HANDS while we screamed. In all of the numbers, the juxtaposition of the dancers’ haunted expressions and their gorgeous, intricate movement was sexy, eerie, and lovely all at once.
Interspersed with the dancing was more of Adra Boo as Mama, who sang Beyoncé a cappella in a black-veiled hat, oozing presence and showing off powerful vocals with subtle inflection. Her character was southern, accented, fun, and not a little intimidating. She warned us that when you’re dreaming you never know what will happen next: “It might be a nightmare; it might be a sweet dream.”
It wasn’t always clear which type of dream we were living in, but I didn’t want to wake up. The details were specific to each number, and consistently well executed. In one haunted hospital scene, nude-illusion scars replaced pasties when the dancers removed their bras. In another, the dancers skillfully played with fans, snapping them open and twisting them around their lithe bodies. American soldiers stomped alongside leather-clad gun-toting sex dolls in a military number.
Each performance had a story, within which the dancers were able to showcase their unique skills. The performers also worked well collectively, and their individuality added interest to group scenes. Dancers who soloed in one number became sinister backdrops or sensual support in others. At one point a group on the main stage sturdily linked arms to catch a dancer who flung herself down from the attic into their safety net of limbs.
One area for improvement was the order of the show. Some of the physical feats in the first act were so jaw-dropping that the relatively tamer numbers of the second half weren’t as exciting by comparison. Revising the order to achieve a smoother overall arc and leaving some surprises for the end would have helped the show finish with a bang.
Mama clearly loved her collection of dolls, and her big dollhouse—and her affection helped us love them too. She called out white folks for various problematic behaviors, and then retracted a bit, allowing that “reparations” had let her purchase this “big house.”
The retraction wasn’t necessary (it is not the job of performers of color to make white audiences feel comfortable), but the funding is. A grant from Seattle Arts & Culture partially funded this production. Somebody give Simone Pin Productions another grant so they can keep doing productions at this scale. And all of us should continue buying tickets for and telling our friends about POC-produced and performed art like this. The second run of Dollhouse was supposed to appear later this month at Northwest Film Forum, but has been moved to Re-bar due to budget constraints (even though the evening I attended at NWFF was sold out). Bar theatre is great—and if you’re reading this, you should buy tickets for the November 20-21 shows and then tip the dancers well. Work of this caliber, however, deserves a mainstage. Dollhouse is an example of exceptional performance that crosses genre boundaries and expands audience thinking—of what dance is, what burlesque can be, and of which bodies should be celebrated. It even got my scaredy-cat self believing that haunted houses might be a rolicking good time.
Dollhouse, presented by Simone Pin Productions, appeared October 31 – November 2, 2019 at Northwest Film Forum. A second showing appears November 20-21, 2019 at Re-bar. For more info and tickets for upcoming shows, click HERE.