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Paper Dolls

"In Israel nothing is as it seems." Etai, the photographer to the Paper Dolls
Paper Dolls
Ariel Felix as Sally (Photo by Stan Barouh)
The American premiere of Paper Dolls at the Mosaic in Washington, DC is based on a real story that goes like this: In Tel Aviv in 2004, following the Intifada, Palestinians were not allowed to enter Israel which led to a void in care-givers who looked after the elderly. Those jobs were soon filled by Filipinos who were granted special visas valid as long as they were legally employed.

Among them was a group called the Paper Dolls. By day, they tended to elderly Jewish men; by night, they performed in drag at one of Tel Aviv's many nightclubs. Enter a shy, closeted, Jewish male photographer, Etai, from a provincial part of Israel. He wants to make a documentary about the Paper Dolls. Etai (John Bambery, who is very believable ) in his naivety brings in his friend Nazari (Elan Zafir in a strong performance.) He's a nightclub entrepreneur/sleeze bag who says the Dolls are great but ... he wants to use only three of the five, change their act, change their costumes, change their choreography etc. The "girls, desperate for money to send home to their families and to pay off the agents who helped them get jobs in Israel, agree to his terms. From there things go downhill in both the story line and the production.

There is plenty of humor in the meeting of people from totally dissimilar cultures, but misuse of language jokes and incongruous situations can only go so far. Funny sight gags, particularly in how the Paper Dolls are dressed, are plentiful thanks to Frank Labovitz's costumes, many of which are made from paper. But the script which is repetitive, could use pruning, the rear screen projections are distracting and the vulgarity is gratuitous. As the Dolls sing, "Genuch is genuch."

The funniest parts of the evening which, at 2 hours and 35 minutes, is waaay too long, are the songs. Vogueing to "Walk on the Wild Side," and "Voulez Vous Couchez Avec Moi Se Soir?" are very funny. And "Tzena Tzena" makes the audience clap with pleasure. But the number that brings the house down is "Hava Negila" partly because of what it is an anthem, and partly because of the costumes. J. M. Rebudal's choreography is nothing special and the direction by Mark Brokaw, whose distinguished reputation led to expectation of a more polished production, is disappointing.

Although there is too much sloppiness in the writing, sequence of scenes, and a closing that seems to have a few false starts, there are many fine moments and many fine performances. All five Paper Dolls (Evan D'Angeles, Ariel Felix, Jon Norman Schneider, Rafael Sebastian, and Kevin Shen) are in good form as are Christoper Bloch as Chaim, an elderly man looked after lovingly by Ariel Felix as Sally. Their scenes together while sentimental are very touching.

Mosaic is to be commended for producing Paper Dolls as part of its Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival because it does not fit into any specific category.It's not a musical but, as the program states "a play with songs."

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PRODUCTION NOTES Paper Dolls, A Play With Songs, adapted from the documentary film by Tomer Heymann by Philip Himberg
Direction by Mark Brokaw
Choreography by J. M. Rebudal
Cast: Evan D'Angeles (Zhan/Dance Captain; Ariel Felix (Sally); Jon Norman Schneider (Jiorgio); Rafael Sebastian (Cheska); Kevin Shen (Chiqui); John Bambery (Etai); Christopher Bloch (Chaim); Lise Bruneau (Adina) Chris Daileader (Ensemble/Soldier/Policeman);Brice Guerriere (Ensemble/Immigration/DJ/Guard); Dallas Millholland (Ensemble); Alan Zafir (Ensemble/Nazari.)
Scenery by James Kronzer
Lighting by Brittany Shemuga
Costumes by Frank Labovitz
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Mosaic Theater Company of DC, at the Atlas, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.; 202-399-7993.
March 29 to April 29, 2018.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson April 3, 2018 performance.

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