The tropes of old-school grindhouse flicks are transferred to the stage with enthusiastic fidelity at Strawdog Theater, and when actor Joe Mack makes his first entrance - wearing mirrored sunglasses, a mustache and a suit with a turtleneck - you know you're in good hands, at least style-wise. I am a little less convinced of the production's raison d'être, but more on that in a moment.
I can't say enough about how well this is all done, from Raquel Adorno's florid period costumes (and Lee Russell's makeup) to Heath Hays' sound design (a specific pop song plays hauntingly on the transistor radio each time blood is spilled) to Michael Driscoll's direction (the show is deeply sinister) to the individual performances themselves, including those of the three young wannabe starlets played by Hillary Marren, Alexandra Fisher and Kelsey Shipley.
The last time a Darren Callahan play and I crossed paths was in 2009. Polarity Theatre mounted his The White Airplane, a fantasy about a Lilliput airline that transports souls from body to body. Cool concept notwithstanding, the thing was a mess, its scenes apparently arranged by chance. Now that I've seen Strawdog Theatre's staging of another Callahan script, I'm thinking that messy may be his aesthetic. Scenes get strewn every which way in this 80-minute tribute to sex-and-violence exploitation movies such as Roger Corman turned out in the 1960s. But the dissonance isn't just structural. I found myself feeling more and more alienated from Desperate Dolls as it went on its Hollywood-starlet-murdering way. In the time of Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, and Ray Rice, it's harder than ever to find campy humor in brutalized women.
Few would believe the Chicago theatre is more lively and diverse than the theaters of the more famous Broadway productions of New York City. But risk taking is in Chicago’s veins: it is a place to come, build your skills and try out new things without the fear of failure. Second City native and playwright Darren Callahan takes many risks, some that fly and some that fall in his latest production, “Desperate Dolls”. It made its world premiere at the Strawdog Theatre in Chicago in late November of 2014.
Directed by Michael Driscoll, “Dolls” follows three beautiful, young women who come to Hollywood in 1968. They come looking for stardom but find trouble. They land an audition with ‘Sunny’ Jack Fennigan, a small-time producer who makes female-dominated independent films but lacks the funds to make the big pictures he desires. But when a powerful agent known only as ‘the Captain,’ played by Jim Poole, swoops in seemingly to save the day, Sunny Jack and his girls (known only as Matchbox, Pretty Sexy and The Vil, played by Alexandra Fisher, Kelsey Shipley and Hillary Marren respectively) have their dreams turn to nightmares of murder, hypnotism and seedy motel rooms.
“Dolls” plays like those B-horror movies from the 60s and 70s you find in the dark corner of Netflix when you’re bored at 3 a.m.; beautiful, naive girls who want to be stars, twisted psychos, and of course, buckets and buckets of blood. Unlike those B-movies, this play wasn’t something you like because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” It actually was good.
The acting was, of course, over the top but not in a distracting way. It was homage to those movies we love to hate but took a modern spin on it. Joe Mack, who played Sunny Jack, warned his wife about the despicable things his character does. Sunny sleeps with all three of the girls in Dolls, almost raping one, and there is of course lots and lots of blood. “But what I didn’t expect was to feel sad for these girls,” Mack said.
Fisher, Shipley, and Marren bring a sense of innocence to the piece. They’re wide-eyed dreamers who will do anything to be stars. Though none of the characters have a real name, so to speak, we care about them because they are real people.
Murder is not an easy thing to stage but the stage combat displayed in one of the first murder scenes was so impressive, I forgot it wasn’t real but rehearsed; she’s not actually getting hurt. The Captain picks Matchbox up by the throat with one hand and throws her across the room. This is more impressive when you take into account how small the stage was. The space was no larger than a big living room, holding about 30 or so audience members—some of their feet actually touched the set pieces. This level of intimacy made the fight choreography more exciting and the play even more bone-chilling.
We like B-movies because they’re simple and we can laugh at ourselves for watching something so silly. “Dolls” defies that convention and is more than just a bloodbath. It makes you think about the seediness of Hollywood, the desperation of fame and that monsters aren’t just on the silver screen. Sometimes they are in the room next to yours.
Maybe in the future, “Desperate Dolls” will play among the elite of Broadway or be filmed in one of Tinseltown’s studios, but remember you saw it in Chicago first. The Second City is first in just about everything else.
From the earliest tales of foolish maidens who ventured out to the Fair/the Ball/the Big City/Hollywood and later, to the Prom/Rock Concert, only to be seduced by Satan's homeys, entertainment engineered to titillate has trumpeted its value as a morality fable. Consumers of soft-core porn, you see, don't want to see a bad girl doing naughty things—they want to see a good girl doing naughty things. Darren Callahan's adherence to this principle makes for a well-crafted museum piece, but it also alerts us to a hazard of the genre: For the viewers of cut-rate exploitation flicks, the perverse behavior replicated on the screen is its own justification, but authors, too, risk becoming so enamored of their own masturbatory fantasy that they fall prey to their own illusion, and in doing so, lose sight of their initial purpose.
Strawdog Theatre's predominantly male creative staff may have begun their project the loftiest of artistic motives, but the results of their labor emerge a museum piece not far removed from the "dirty pictures" that Callahan's Tinsel-Town hero claims not to make any more.
The narrative is presented scene by scene in non-chronological order—a Euro-surrealist affectation temporarily distracting us from the familiar B-movie tropes: Three nubile young West Coast newcomers—blonde, brunette and redhead—agree to appear in Jack Fennigan's sex-and-sunshine movies, seeing in them a stepping stone to more serious recognition. Little do they suspect that the director is under contract to, literally, the producer from hell. Soon, wholesome tits-and-ass romps give way to grisly slasher-fests, a masked stranger with supernatural powers murders the terrified damsels one by one, and their ghosts return to wreak revenge on the man who steered them wrong.
When the goal is an homage to American International, Hammer and other low-budget film studios of the 1960s and '70s, there's no need to apologize for Mad Men-era motel-room decor, or Hitchcock-knockoff juxtaposition of the Ronettes chirping "He Came, He Saw, He Conquered" with the shrieks and struggles of conveniently underdressed damsels—or, for that matter, the whole guilty-pleasure aesthetic remaining as popular today as when Petronius or Thomas Middleton pandered to audiences asking only for squirms disguised as shudders. No one can deny the high quality of period accuracy reflected in the Strawdog ensemble's athletic performances and scenic/wardrobe design, but the playbill note speculating on why this style of drama is so rarely done in live theater overlooks the vast library of original material available on Netflix allowing for more, um, private viewing.
[Note: Due to the subject matter and graphic nature of this production, no one under the age of 18 will be admitted.]
One motel room is like another. It's a line that's threaded throughout Desperate Dolls, a new play by Darren Callahan that had its world premiere under the direction of Michael Driscoll at Strawdog Theatre on Monday. The point is certainly well made, considering the entire plot unfolds on a single set--a motel room, portrayed as several different motel rooms scattered around 1968 Hollywood, a time and place that is said to be composed entirely of motel rooms that all look alike and contain horror stories of their own.
HOLLYWOOD HORROR STORY
Director Michael Driscoll brings B-movie exploitation antics to Strawdog's Hugen Hall stage in Darren Callahan's Desperate Dolls. This over-the-top, no-holds-barred dose of scary, sexy entertainment packs a swift punch. Scenes change swiftly, sometimes startlingly, seemingly haphazardly, and nearly always seamlessly, keeping nimble stage manager Shannon Golden and her assistant Tala Said fully occupied. By the end of this 70-minute, intermission-less fright fest, however, everything begins to make sense. Blonde beauty Matchbox (Alex Fisher), buxom brunette The Vil (Hillary Marren), and red-hot redhead Pretty Sexy (Kelsey Shipley) are the show's titular dolls. They are very desperate indeed, desperate to make it as actresses in 1968 Hollywood, even if it means seducing sleaze ball Sunny Jack Fennigan (Joe Mack) in order to get a part in one of his low-budget flicks. Into their world of petty jealousies and sexual escapades comes another talent-seeker with nefarious intent, the psychotic agent-cum-serial killer The Captain (Jim Poole). Fantasy and reality blur together as the dolls take on the roles of their lives. Fisher, Marren, and Shipley bring equal amounts of sex appeal and desperate vulnerability to their respective roles, while Mack hams it up with great gusto and delight. It's only Poole whose acting is unsatisfactory, but his one-dimensional part doesn't provide much of a challenge. Raquel Adorno's costumes, Jamie Karas's props, and Ashley Woods' set stylishly evoke the Swinging Sixties, right down to Pretty Sexy's go-go boots and the seedy motel room. Subtlety might be in short supply during this Strawdog offering, but it's hardly necessary when fake blood is flying amidst half-naked girls eagerly jumping in and out of bed. In short, Desperate Dolls revels in cliché with Tarantino-esque abandon.
Strawdog Theatre's Desperate Dolls might best be summed up by Jim Morrison's L.A. Woman (motel, money, murder, madness). Written by Darren Callahan and directed by Michael Driscoll, Desperate Dolls offers serious helpings of noire mixed up with buckets of blood and a side of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure. At the center of it all are three actresses (known by the nicknames Matchbox, The Vil, and Pretty Sexy) so desperate to make it in Hollywood that they willingly audition in motel rooms and desperately vie for the attention of low life movie producer Sunny Jack (played convincingly by Joe Mack). Under Jack's direction the three star in progressively darker exploitation films that showcase the young ladies engaging in escalating acts of violence. Somewhere in the shadows of all this is a very menacing, murderous force ready to devour the girls whole.
This is an ambitious effort that truly deserves an A+ for effort. At the very least the talented actresses (Alex Fisher, Hillary Marren, and Kelsey Shipley) deserve a special award for delivering most of their lines in their undies. It could not have been easy allowing one self to be that vulnerable on stage. I do wish, however, they were given more to do than make gooey eyes and scream in terror. Because these characters were not fully fleshed out, the onstage violence (of which there is much of) felt more exploitative than a homage to past exploitation films.
Visually there are some scenes of wonder, but taken as a whole too much of the play feels disjointed. It is altogether too stylized to be truly terrifying or suspenseful and too self-aware to be taken seriously. There is some nifty non-linear story telling going on and the plot pieces (just like one of the starlets) can be coherently stitched back together. But in the end there are just not enough choice bits to make it a worthwhile endeavor.
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.
Like late sixties sexploitation slasher films? How about in-your-face physiological thrillers? Have a taste for blood and boobs and mystery? Then Desperate Dolls, the newest offering at Strawdog Theatre is just the Holiday show you're looking for.
Set in a motel room in 1968 Hollywood, this drama/horror/comedy /pulp/sci-fi/mash-up takes the audience on a surrealist journey through the trials and tribulations of three wannabe Hollywood starlets and their seemingly sleazy director/producer.
The plot, which takes your full attention to navigate, jumps around in time and space on its way to multiple tragic conclusions. Part purgatory, part social commentary the room exists as jail cell and doorway, to other dimensions and evil intentions. Greed, jealousy, control, and lust are all themes which are explored. Neither the play, nor the space are designed with audience comfort in mind, prepare to squirm in your seat for more than one reason.
First we meet slick "Sunny" Jack Fennigan (Joe Mack) introduced by appropriate 'that guy' theme music and swagger. Headshots in hand he prepares to meet potential muses for his upcoming feature. Not surprisingly a smart and shapely blonde appears, who Jack finds fetching enough to give the nickname "Matchbox" (Alexandra Fischer) In true Charlie's Angel's fashion she is joined by the two more aspiring ingénues , "Pretty Sexy" (Kelsey Shipley) and "The Vil" which is short for Villian (Hillary Marren) all three star in Jack's Beach Blanket Bingo-esqe girly flick. From here the story devolves into a multi-scene-other-worldly backstabbing (and front stabbing) romp. Later, we are introduced to Captain (Jim Poole) a handy man, a business man, a magician with a toolbox. Revealing too much more about the plot may detract from your experience, although to fully understand what transpires you may need a flowchart.
While we appreciate the challenge presented to the viewers via the gritty subject matter, it is not entirely clear if the exploration is intended to make comment on the objectification and sexualization of the Hollywood ritual, or whether it is glorifying or paying homage to it. There's a fine line between subverting an established trope and promoting it, especially when that trope happens to contain multiple violent acts against women and exposed female forms. That is not to say that this sort of difficult material has no place on the stage, but the balance should be carefully considered.
The time-setting is specifically appropriate when considering the mindset of the country, cinematic landcape, and the world at-large at this time in history. All seemed to be poised on the brink of losing the early sixties optimism, replacing it with cynicism and a loss of innocence. Films such as Bonne and Clyde , Easy Rider, and Night of the Living Dead all were produced around this time and the disillusionment and dissolving values present in society at the time are showcased in the interspersed and innovative film vignettes peppered throughout the show. These mini moves darken in tone and subject matter as we spiral down the rabbit hole.
Many of the technical and performative elements were well executed (pun intended) but as is sometime the case with highly stylized pieces, could have gone further and been more consistent. Dialogue delivered at times with strict attention to period appropriate characterizations gave way to more contemporary, modern reads, as did the physicality and movement in the space. The world of the play would have been better served if these heightened portrayals were present throughout or if the transitions were clearly deliberate. While the energy level and stakes that the performers achieved is certainly commendable, there was a desire for a more precise, truthful, and organized method of chaos. Fear for an actor's vocal or physical safety can be distracting and while somewhat effective, is unnecessary if the same effect can be created another way.
Heath Hays' sound design was a welcome through-line guiding the audience along on the subliminally tense journey. His repeated and transformative use of a familiar Ronettes song was particularly enjoyable. The various incarnations of the song used as cue and calling card imbued this pop theme with delightful menace. Lighting by Jordan Kardasz supported the overall feel, especially the harsh shadowed doors to nowhere and practical use of a retro television on set which provided an eerie luminescence and both gave a decidedly horror movie quality to the piece. Scene shifting blackouts tended to halt the pace and continuity of the show. It would have been interesting to see these transitional elements included in the overall overlapping theme.
Desperate Dolls may not be everyone's cup of T&A, but is an interesting take on the sacrifices made in the name of fame. Seventy minutes of screaming, scheming, and secrets is sure to titillate theatre patrons interested in pieces that push boundaries and buttons.
Across town, Strawdog Theatre, another of Chicago’s premium houses, is creating a bit of theatrical scandal with their first run production of Darren Callahan’s Desperate Dolls, as well.
Taking place in the seedier side of late ’60s Hollywood, this grindhouse event details what happens when a shady producer and his three sexy leading ladies come face to face with the true evil of show business. Full of supernatural hypnotism, bloody murders and plenty of twisted erotic energy, Callahan and director Michael Driscoll create a darkly taut tale here.
Granted, this production is fully imbued with spirit of director Russ Meyer, whose underground classics include Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, Kill, giving this event a potent, enjoyable kink. Yet, this work is also seemingly haunted by the ghosts of such murdered starlets as Sharon Tate and Christa Helm. Thus, there is an unnerving emotional quality at play, as well.
Fully invested in by a talented cast, with special mention being given to Alex Fisher, Hillary Marren and Kelsey Shipley as the (strong, often half dressed) women, Desperate Dolls proves that theater can be just as intense as the most interestingly explicate film.
Reserved for audiences 18 and up, this piece could also serve as an exciting introduction to theater for those older children who think that if something isn’t on Facebook or Instagram, it isn’t worth viewing.