by Jake Lipman · May 29, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #101 Jake Lipman looks at Life in Plastic, part of Planet Connections Festivity The creator of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler, is quoted as saying, “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
In her sweet and sassy new solo show, Life in Plastic, Tessa Flannery delves into the choices she has made since her childhood spent playing with the iconic plastic doll.
Plastic appears as part of the Planetary Connections Festivity, which bills itself as New York’s premiere socially-conscious arts festival. For her part, Flannery engages the audience in a series of questions and interactions about Barbie, asking us to consider both Barbie’s history and her future impact.
Many of the audience interactions are striking in their sincerity. As I walked into the Downstairs Theater at the Paradise Factory, Flannery stood facing the audience, a frozen smile on her pretty face, standing in a PVC-piped box much like the kind Barbie herself comes in. She held this position for several minutes as the house filled, before stepping forth to introduce herself and the piece. As first moments go, this was potent: Flannery was objectifying herself, compelling us to look at her and take her in solely on her looks.
After educating us on Barbie’s genesis, Flannery listed the many careers Barbie has held: astronaut, president, veterinarian, and, in her delightful deadpan, “baby doctor.” Therein lies Flannery’s complicated view of Barbie: is she inspirational or reductive? She jokes at one point that 99% of all people (a made-up statistic) play games with Barbie that involve re-enacting sex, but perhaps most disturbing is how many people destroy their Barbie, chopping her hair, ironing her bust, or removing her head.
Flannery dissects her own diminished self-esteem throughout. While she attributes some of her weight concerns to a salad-eating grandmother, she shies away from detailing her true desires for herself. I understand the obstacles she and many other women face, but what is her specific dream for herself?
Director Rebecca Cunningham keeps the action moving and engaging, and Jeff Wong’s sleek, tongue-in-cheek set flatters Flannery’s feminist feud.
Flannery’s easy banter with the audience is kind and never judgmental. A late-in-the-show rant goes a bit farther afield than necessary, into genital mutilation and hate crimes, but hits a sweet spot when she, made up and dressed as Princess Barbie, angrily argues with an unseen voice of Barbie (voiced also by Flannery, executing well-rounded vowels and perky platitudes with aplomb).
If Barbie’s creator, Handler, wanted girls who played with Barbie to have choices, Flannery wonders, why are there only 2 female executives out of 11 at Mattel? “3 on the board,” she sputters, before gathering her dolls off the floor and returning to stand frozen in her box.