By Darren Callahan
Directed by Michael Driscoll
Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company
Horror Does Not Work Onstage
Desperate Dolls is a poorly considered script and production now playing in Strawdog’s side theatre. While watching one of what was supposed to be many gripping scenes of violence and confusion, I was distanced enough to think to myself “this is an unpleasant experience.” A note from the artistic director says this script is meant to honor B-movies and Italian slashers by creating a stage equivalent. Therefore, I will assume the stilted dialogue and cardboard acting was deliberate and say no more about it.
The story is that in 1968, a minor film producer, director, and writer (Joe Mack) is auditioning women in his motel room. Each of them is game for screwing him in exchange for beginning their careers. He nicknames them Matchbox, Pretty Sexy, and The Vil (Alexandra Fisher, Kelsey Shipley, and Hillary Marren), and they call him Sunny Jack. Their movies are low on dialogue and creativity, but high in action, eroticism, and blood splatter. They are popular enough to attract the attention of The Captain (Jim Poole), a magical serial killer with powers of telekinesis and mind control. Early in the show, the characters start haunting each other as ghosts.
The scenes are done out of sequence to create the illusion of conflict. If you were to assemble them chronologically, you would find the story is simply that The Captain kills people. The women agreed to join The Captain’s studio at some point off-stage, so maybe there was supposed to be some point about plastic surgery or some way performers sacrifice their bodies for art that’s barely art, but that’s a reach on my part. The reason sex and violence are so conflated in slasher movies is that people want to see sex, but lingering puritanism demands sexy people be depicted as evil and getting their just desserts. If you asked Strawdog’s artists they’d probably say they were subverting or commenting on that idea, but, in fact, the play does not.
One strength of the production is the use of films edited by Joel Sacramento that feature the actresses and Ryan Hallahan in Sunny Jack’s movies. These clips are truer homages to the type of movie that would have been featured on the satirical movie critic website The Agony Booth or Mystery Science Theater 3000 in that their incompetence made them unintentionally funny. Humor is sorely lacking in the live sections of Desperate Dolls. Instead, the production goes each time for genuine terror. That is a miscalculation, because live theatre cannot be a movie. When a blood-soaked actress is standing six inches away from you, it is obvious the blood is fake and not from any wounds no matter how loud she screams. You can tell when a struggle is carefully choreographed to avoid breaking anything. The worst violence has to occur offstage because it can’t be faked. When lights go down, but not so far down the actors can’t find their way offstage, you can see them resetting props and furniture. And when a theatre can’t afford risers for the audience’s chairs, you have the head of the person in front of you shielding you from the killer.
Since the other program note is all about how the immediacy of the theatre creates a deeper psychological impact, this misunderstanding is what breaks the show and caused it to be staged in the first place. There really isn’t anything psychological about Desperate Dolls. Pretty Sexy is from Seattle; Matchbox played Annie Oakley in high school; The Vil, we are told, has potential to be a successful actress. Sunny Jack has a friend named Paul. That is the extent of their characters. Their response to being raped and murdered is to scream and cry. Since the technical limitations of theatre make sensory shock impossible and the artistic limitations of the genre make empathy or understanding impossible, there is nothing left. Desperate Dolls is loud and messy, though not that messy, but is neither engaging nor enjoyable.
Reviewed November 25, 2014
For more information, see Desperate Dolls’s page at Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 North Broadway, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-528-9696 or visit www.strawdog.org. Tickets are $15. Runs through December 23. Plays Monday and Tuesday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 12:00 pm and 8:00 pm. Running time is seventy minutes. Must be eighteen or older to enter.
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