Welcome to the Dollhouse
I'm here to talk about Kara Lee Corthron’s Holly Down in Heaven at Forum Theatre. That's actually all I'm supposed to talk about, but as Holly is a world premiere, a few words first about the smokin’ hot topic of NEW PLAYS. Because everyone seems to be scared of them or something, and I don't want you to be.
First of all, most "new plays" getting produced or presented aren't new. They're more like two, four years plus three readings and two development workshops new. Second, I'd be willing to bet that the average theatergoer wouldn't know or care whether the play was by a local writer, or someone right out of Yale, or someone who was a big deal playwright thirty years ago. Why? Theater is not mainstream. Going to the theater is not a mainstream activity, and theater stars are household names to a very tiny pool of people. New plays aren't risky. Theater itself is risky. That's why it's exciting! Both audience and artists make themselves vulnerable for a set amount of time each night, and that exchange, that partnership is what makes creating and seeing live shows worthwhile.
So. Holly Down in Heaven. It was a damn good time.
I showed up to the theater early, so I got to sit for a while and take in my pre-show surroundings. Dainty music box tunes tinkled in the background and rafters formed a low ceiling. I was very clearly in a basement. A girl’s basement, private, sacred and removed from the world. Everything was clean as a whistle, filled wall-to-wall with dolls of all kinds. A wooden staircase that seemed to stretch for a mile led to a door, the kind that’s made of hollow wood and painted white. You know the kind. They're in all of those mammoth, newly built cul-de-sac houses that you see scattered through empty fields across America. I felt like I’d been here before.
And then one of the dolls (Kofi Annan!) told me to silence my cellphone. I complied.
If this basement is heaven, though, then I sure don’t want to see what hell looks like. Holly, fifteen and pregnant, has holed herself up in her underground girl-cave under the pretense of newly found Christianity. The basement, packed with Holly's extensive, global doll collection, serves as both her haven and her prison. It's a wax museum of Holly's childhood with a mind of its own. The dolls vow to stop at nothing to keep Holly tethered there, whether it's in her best interest or not. In the upstairs world of adults, Holly's spare-the-rod father encourages her to get an abortion to avoid throwing away her life, all the while cooing at her with pet names and toy bribery. A local grad student is hired to keep Holly on top of her studies, but Holly is way ahead of her class and instead uses her tutor like a human mouse-toy. But don’t get me wrong—the play is really quite funny. A talking doll collection from around the world? Come on! A near minute and a half of stage time fully devoted to busting the Pop Rocks and soda legend? Nice. Bleak or not, the play is moving and gleefully fun to watch. Corthron’s writing is tight, polished, and economical, and the performances never fade into the background or shy away from the more difficult material.
I also love that Corthron took subject matter like teen pregnancy and kneaded it around to create a bizarre, refreshingly unusual play. There's no stereotyped baby daddy bullshit here. There's no Juno bullshit here either. The teens act and talk like teens. The adults are more than set-dressing with their real problems and meaty backstories. And the dolls (Vanessa Strickland, Luke Cieslewicz, and KyoSin) are living, breathing characters in their own right with enough power to influence Holly's future and worldliness to tell some pretty good jokes. Maya Jackson is perfectly infuriating as the spoiled-brat teen genius Holly, and Parker Drown, while sadly in a small role, was fantastic as Yager, Holly's funny, sweet and seriously flawed ex-boyfriend. Dawn Thomas brings a welcome subdued balance to the cast as Mia the tutor, and KenYatta Rogers’ exaggerated, just-put-on-a-smile portrayal of Holly’s dad is amusing and heartbreaking at the same time.
So dear reader, fear not the new play, and go see Holly Down in Heaven. See it because it's something new, because it's fun and entertaining, and because it will leave you with a lot to think and talk about. Kudos to Forum Theatre for continuing to bring new and lovely plays to DC.
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