The Paper Doll Ensemble has opened its debut production, This is How Girls Die, upstairs at Plays and Players Theatre. TIHGD is a devised piece, collaboratively created by the ensemble’s members, Grayce Hoffman, Amanda Jensen, Simi Toledano and Sara Vanasse, about fear and isolation in the wake of tragedy.
Hoffman, Toledano and Vanasse play triplets Willa Jo, Rae and Penny respectively. It’s their birthday, an event that gently interrupts a petrifying routine devised to maintain a sense of safety and normality following the death of their mother, an event that occurred some years ago. Throughout the day, we learn that the sisters are not on the same page on several of these restrictions and regimens, from how their breakfast is prepared to whether or not they should brave the outdoors.
One risk with devised pieces is the temptation to include an indulgence of bits, regardless of their appropriateness in the piece as a whole. On this, I give The Paper Doll Ensemble a B+. While there were some interruptions in the action that may or may not have occurred organically, they didn’t sever the story line, nor did they feel out of character. Vanasse is a member of the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training, and that influence is evident in the emotional and encompassing physicality of some of the more movement-heavy scenes.
The strength of TIHGD lies in its characters. The actors clearly spent considerable time with these sisters, as evidenced by their fleshed-out portrayals of each. Hoffman’s Willa Jo (dressed entirely in white), who is the oldest (by two minutes), is the boss, the one for whom the routines are so critical. She is decisive by rote, saccharine as long as the line is held, but she explodes at the slightest suggestion of diversion. She feasts on a Podcast, entitled This is How Girls Die, which describes gruesome and chilling encounters that, if they don’t lead up to a girl’s actual death, are a hair’s breadth away from doing so. Willa Jo mouths along with the more horrific passages gleefully, providing the most unsettling moments in the play. Toledeno’s Rae (all in red) has a secret that the audience is immediately in on, and it hangs over the first three quarters of the hour-long show, and that secret shines a spotlight on Vanasse’s Penny (all in pink, a mix of red and white), an otherwise inconsequential little sister who suddenly finds herself the fulcrum, responsible for determining on which side of the scale the future of the family will fall.
The characters and story are intertwined, a through line that is not eschewed by the supplementary movement scenes, but rather reveals them as successful attempts to expand upon the piece as a whole. TIHGD took The Paper Doll Ensemble two years of improvising and revision to get where it is today, which means that the show could have either been disjointed and excessive; or tight and disciplined yet distinctive. They produced the latter, which bodes well for the future of the ensemble.
Tickets are $15 ($10 industry). More information can be found here: http://playsandplayers.org/this-is-how-girls-die/
More info on The Paper Doll Ensemble can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/PaperDollEnsemble/