There’s no more Jewish play on stage this season in greater Washington than Mosaic Theater Company’s “Paper Dolls.” That its main characters are five Filipino drag queens who work day jobs as home health aides in the haredi Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of B’nai B’rak raises the question, what’s so Jewish?
Plenty. Aside from the bearded, black-coated Chasidim providing background, the inflections of Hebrew songs and prayers, and a foreboding backdrop of the intifada, “Paper Dolls’” most Jewish element is also its most universal: longing for home and family.
And, these five men, who dress as women in their off hours, reinvent themselves and create their own fiercely loyal clan.
“Paper Dolls,” which runs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast Washington through April 29, is another salvo in Mosaic Theater founding director Ari Roth’s long-running Voices from a Changing Middle East programming, which began at Theater J in 2000 and moved, with Roth, to Mosaic three years ago.
Based on acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann’s 2006 documentary, which focused its lens on the oft-ignored struggles guest workers in Israel face performing jobs many Israelis won’t — construction, farming, caring for the elderly — this stage version by Philip Himberg is right on trend. Israeli culture and politics are primed for an American theatrical moment.
This U.S. premiere marks Mosaic’s first foray into musical theater, though it is wisely dubbed “a play with songs.” The musical numbers are modest and feature both original compositions and covers of, interestingly, both club standards and Jewish liturgy and folk songs.
Set in 2004, while Israel is embroiled in the second intifada, the evening reveals the gritty lives of the working underclass. As we learn in “Paper Dolls,” the second intifada upped the demand as the nation closed its borders to Palestinian workers. The guest workers pay, often dearly, a middleman for a work permit and if they lose the job, they must leave — or be deported.
Under this shadow, the five fast friends from the Philippines build a simple life that revolves around work and, off hours, on creating and rehearsing their show. Scenic designer James Kronzer has crafted a recognizable set of narrow, rundown streets in an aging Jewish neighborhood, often gray and grim. No wonder these guest workers want a little color and flash in their lives.
In seedy nightclubs, they sing and dance, glammed up in sequins, feathers and false eyelashes, hoping to sweep off the drudgery of caring for the infirm and dying and their homesickness. The group’s ringleader, Sally, cares for Chaim, and the warm, respectful relationship the two develop provides the heart center of the play. Himberg relates how this older, traditional Jewish man learns to accept his caregiver’s penchant for female clothing, makeup and long hair. He sees beyond the mask.
Sally (Ariel Felix) is steadfast and assured, the honcho of this band of misfits — Jiorgio (Jon Norman Schneider), the free spirited hairdresser; Cheska (Rafael Sebastian), the boyishly — or is that girlishly? — bold one; Chiqui (Kevin Shen), Jiorgio’s older brother and a calming force in this opinionated makeshift family, and Zhan (Evan D’Angeles), the most outspoken of the lot, who expresses a desire not just to dress in woman’s clothes, but to become a woman. On stage they call themselves the Paper Dolls.
Infiltrating this insular and protective group, filmmaker Etai (John Bambery) persuades them that he can get them a spot at the hottest big city club. Unconvincingly Bambery struggles to make a substantial mark of this weakly written part — an addition Himberg made to the play that doesn’t quite fill out the themes, though it provides some connective plot maneuvering.
Don’t expect the craftsmanship of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the intellect of Stephen Sondheim or even flashy, exacting kicklines akin to Jerry Herman’s “La Cage ….” The drag cover numbers, choreographed by J.M. Rebudal, have a purposefully makeshift feel to match the makeshift lives these characters navigate.
The cast also features Lise Bruneau as Chaim’s daughter who wants to dismantle her father’s comfortable life and his paternal feelings toward Sally to assuage her own guilt. Himberg portrays some Israelis in a harsh light, including impatient and disrespectful nightclub owner Nizari, played with a perfect Israeli accent and machismo by Elan Zafir, himself the son of an Israeli. Officious and cold clerks, police officers and other bosses, don’t come off well either.
But, the warm heart of the play rests with Chaim. Christopher Bloch demonstrates utmost understanding in this role, and his relationship as a father figure, tutor and friend to his caregiver, Sally. He is nonplussed by her penchant for women’s clothing, accepting her as she is and thriving under her doting and tender care. They have both opened their minds and hearts, allowing in the stranger and forging their own family.
There’s much to love, laugh and cry over in Himberg’s “Paper Dolls,” and though not perfect — cutting, tightening and perhaps tossing out the superfluous filmmaker character might help — it’s a perfect show for right now. Sad and funny. Dark and light. Outrageously provocative and unapologetically traditional all at the same time, “Paper Dolls” shines a spotlight on the disenfranchised, providing a voice to many around the world and, even in the United States, who struggle on society’s fringes.
“Paper Dolls,” through April 29, Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington; tickets $65-$20; visit mosaictheater.org.