Through April 29
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
Paper Dolls review
Philip Himberg’s “Paper Dolls” is a play with songs based on a short documentary about five Filipino caregivers in Tel Aviv who perform as a drag troupe on their off hours.
Mosaic Theater Company’s U.S. premiere production at Atlas Performing Arts Center gets off to a slow start, peaks midway and doesn’t know when to end. But winning performances by the five dolls and a touching family-centered subplot lifts a clunky script from sinking director Mark Brokaw’s effervescent effort.
Set in 2004 Israel against the 2nd Intifada (Palestinian uprising) when guest workers were sought to replace barred Palestinians, the action focuses on the eponymous quintet of gay and transgender Filipinos charged with caring for elderly, religious Jewish men. Their dreary days are spent earning money to send home, but by night they slip away into a world of fun and low-rent glamour.
The five include wise Salvatore, better known as Sally (the terrific Ariel Felix); responsible Chiqui (Kevin Shen) and sassy younger sibling Jiorgio (Jon Norman Schneider); subdued Cheska (Rafael Sebastian) and best friend, the alternately giggly and weepy Zhan (Evan D’Angeles).
In bustling Tel Aviv, the Dolls find freedom far from home. Their true selves emerge singing karaoke style and performing rehearsed routines while wearing bright boas and dresses made from newspapers like the liberal national paper Haaretz and the more colorful local gay rag, all cleverly rendered by costume designer Frank Labovitz.
Behind the show’s splashy, upbeat numbers lies a less bouncy backstage story. The banter is overly G-rated — you’ll overhear racier chitchat from the queens on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — but while changing costumes and eating home cooking, they discuss gender identity, aspects of Israeli culture, family and obliquely refer to sex lives. Another pressing topic is their fragile legal status which depends entirely on employment. If they’re fired or their charge dies, they either exit the country stat or land in a detention center.
Into the mix enters Etai (John Bambery), a budding young gay Israeli filmmaker who proposes the dolls be the subject of his new documentary. The friends are suspicious but flattered by his attention and the prospect of some notoriety and cash. Etai, who’s never clearly defined as friend, foe or sexual interest, connects them with the obnoxious owner of Tel Aviv’s biggest club, Nazari (a convincing Elan Zafir).
After a rousing audition that includes the dolls take on both “Hava Nagila” and “Lady Marmalade,” the group gets the gig provided they pare down to three and reimagine themselves as robotic geishas.
In another culture colliding number earlier in the show, two dolls dressed as modestly dressed female settlers pair off to perform “No More Tears (Enough IS Enough).” Halfway through the disco hit, they doff their demure duds to finish the song in sparkly skivvies.
A beautifully acted subplot offers a glimpse into Sally’s work/home life caring for Chaim (Christopher Bloch) who is dying from throat cancer. The two have come to a warm understanding. Sally calls her boss Papa, and Chaim uses the pronoun she for Sally. Chaim’s daughter Adina (Lise Bruneau), who has come from New York to take her father home with her, is bit confused by the setup. It’s a subtle story of understanding and acceptance.
James Kronzer’s dark set captures the look of Tel Aviv’s southern, less affluent neighborhoods while persuasively serving as nightclubs, various homes, and the Western Wall. Projections and sound design by Sarah Tundermann and David Lamont Wilson, respectively, create additional atmosphere.
“Paper Dolls” is part of Mosaic’s ongoing Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.