Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Toy story


'Dolls' at NCTC

Actor Michael Phillis. Photo: Meg Messina Photography
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It's a world where discrimination is tolerated, nay, even encouraged. The leader of this land has a list of recommended epithets to be hurled at members of the lowest caste. Calling someone a U.P.P. is a particularly stinging insult, signifying as it does "useless piece of plastic," and reserved for those unfortunates born without a single working joint.

This is just a small sample from the elaborate world Michael Phillis has created in Dolls, a magical solo show that transcends its enjoyable toy-story basics with allegorical nuances that pretty much encompass the entire human experience. And all this is accomplished in just 70 minutes, and without a single human character ever uttering a word.

The young writer-performer first displayed his imagination, versatility, quirky humor, and emotional veracity in D*Face, based on his own tales of adolescent terrors of growing up gay. Again at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Dolls extrapolates on his childhood interest in action-figure toys, and imagines a lonely middle-aged man named Frank who has not only kept his childhood toys, but continues to add to his for-show-only collection.

The tale unfolds on Dec. 26, as the newly arrived dolls (possibly Frank's gifts to himself) are given an orientation by the leaders of each shelf, a hierarchy of descending rank from the top shelf where the prized antique collectible dolls are displayed. The self-proclaimed president of the entire collection is a porcelain-bisque southern belle, a honey-dipped totalitarian that the dolls from the other shelves mock, albeit in hushed tones, for her affectations (she was made in Taiwan, after all) and her true heritage (she belonged to Frank's bitter mother, and was not acquired by Frank at all).

On the next shelf, we meet the head of the action figures, the once-fierce Tommy Tomahawk, whose karate-chop arm action was rendered a limp wrist when Frank's mother angrily threw the toy against the wall. "The irony is not lost on me," says the now-mincing Tommy, since we have already learned that dolls take on the personalities of their owners. Frank is gay, and also given to brooding depressions amid occasionally bright moments.

The third shelf is the domain of the fashion dolls, and while Ken and Barbie are names that are not to be spoken, we meet a regiment of Beach Bum Brads, Ken knockoffs who come in multiple skin colors but who all talk in the same slacker-dude voice. The Brads are stationed in the shelf's Green Zone, a haven from the skirmishes that have broken out thanks in part to a group of refugees from Goodwill. And then there are the inarticulates, not vocally challenged, but without mobile articulation, and they are treated as pariahs who fight such misconceptions that their condition is contagious.

Phillis has provided several inventive video and graphic interludes, but even better are his live but silent vignettes of Frank at ages 7 and 13, showing how his doll play evolved from rock-em, sock-em battles to sexual curiosity. And then we see Frank today, in a spasm of joy as his spirit melds with those of his dolls, before sadly melting away once again.

Director Andrew Nance has helped structure and pace the show with canny skill, and John Kelly's lighting and Matt Stines' sound design add to the pleasures of this theatrical bijou. But it is definitely Phillis' show, and with his adaptable face, voice, and body, he exudes a wisdom, both theatrical and human, that extends beyond the confines of the small stage.

Dolls will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Feb. 22. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 861-8972 or go to

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