By Jay Handelman , Theatre &Television Critic Saturday, June 6, 2015
Step into the Urbanite Theatre before a recent rehearsal for “Reborning” and you might feel overwhelmed by the sight of dozens of body parts for baby dolls.
They play a key role in Zayd Dohrn’s dark comedy about a young woman who makes lifelike dolls for customers trying to bring lost loved ones back to life (or at least a sense of them) while her boyfriend urges her to consider starting a family of their own.
“Reborning,” which opens Friday in its area premiere, follows the pledge of Urbanite founders to present plays not likely to be staged anywhere else in Sarasota.
The Los Angeles Times said the play has “an admittedly creepy concept, but there’s nothing cheap about Dohrn’s play, which builds to a shattering denouement.”
Megan Rippey, who plays the doll designer, Kelly, said she has been “immersing herself in the reborning techniques and the subculture” that has been gaining attention in the last few years. “We were lucky enough to be in contact with two reborning artists,” including one in Orlando and another who served as a consultant to an earlier production of the play.
“We’ve gotten some specific materials from them, step-by-step DVD instruction on how to construct these dolls with special kits, special paint. Everything is specific and there are different methodologies in how to create a lifelike appearance of the dolls,” she said. “I’ve been absorbing a lot about how to root the hair with a felting needle and how to apply the paint in a way to make it look blotchy and lifelike.” Layering and baking is intended to create the “layered transparency of skin,” she said.
Rippey, a Los Angeles-based actress appearing in Sarasota for the first time, stars with Urbanite co-founder Brendan Ragan as Kelly’s boyfriend, Daizy, and Natalie Symons, a Tampa-based actress, as Kelly’s newest client, Emily.
The production is directed by former FSU/Asolo Conservatory faculty member Brendon Fox, who said the play allows for the audience to react to any kind of initial creepy sensations “but it goes way beyond that. He doesn’t want the audience to just stay in that black and white place.”
But there’s no denying that “the dolls make some people uncomfortable because of how close to reality they look. If they were not well done, I don’t think it would be as unnerving. One of the things the play explores is the artist who is helping people fill a need,” Fox said.
And in the case of the play, Emily has some specific demands when she orders a doll that should look exactly like her dead baby girl. Over time, Kelly has some concerns about Emily’s past.
“I thought it would be weird at first, but as we’ve gone deeper and deeper into the characters, I understand what was driving Emily to do this,” Symons said. “When I first saw the heads, it was a bit unnerving. But understanding her need, and what she’s attempting to achieve, I can understand why she does this.”
Despite its dark edges, “Reborning” focuses on the characters.
“This play is about really interesting people,” Ragan said. “It’s not about dolls and I think if it were about dolls, it would be creepy and not that interesting, but this is about people and how they’ve gotten to need dolls. That’s way more interesting.”
Fox said it’s a play “about people trying to connect and having lots of connections and having intimacy and sometimes failing. It’s beautiful writing that way and we keep finding new layers. And did we mention it’s funny?” he said. “That’s another great strength of Dohrn’s writing. Just when it gets really dark, he has a very witty sense to him. He has a sense of the macabre and ironic. All three characters are smart in their own way. They all have a sense of humor and he knows how to ratchet up the tension and when to provide release, kind of like Hitchcock.”
The production comes on the heels of Urbanite’s sold-out debut with “Chicken Shop,” which was extended by a week.
“We were thrilled to be so embraced by the community,” said Ragan’s co-artistic director Summer Dawn Wallace. “To sell out ‘Chicken Shop’ was a great thing to happen. But more importantly, it was exciting to see the audience as they were leaving and having such a response to it. We had succeeded in reaching them.”
Ragan said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who came up to them after the show and “said thank-you for doing this. That was so satisfying. There was a lot of work to get this open and so much stress and to have it work out and have people say thank you and that ‘we needed it’ really meant a lot to us.”