By Jessica Taurins
“Be a Doll, Won’t You?” brutally forces the audience to consider their role in human objectification, their opinions on sex work, and their ability to separate performance from performer… plus there’s a fun dance sequence in the middle!
Developed by Ellen Graham (performer) and Zola Allen (director), “Be a Doll” speaks on everything it means to be female presenting in modern society, and the pitfalls that come with taking back control.
Lulu (Graham) is a video sex worker who will do anything for her devoted clients, up to and including self-mutilation purely for their pleasure. These sexual acts are interspersed between conversations with Lulu herself – intentionally vapid and teasing to push her audience into paying for more – and Lauren, the real person using Lulu as a shield against a world of abusers.
“Be a Doll” specifically calls out male cruelty and entitlement at its centre. Lulu’s clients make lewd requests of her that she chooses to fulfil, owning her actions and their outcomes. But before she was Lulu, Lauren was a retail clerk, a waiter, an actor, and was similarly abused by her clientele.
The moments of audience interaction in the performance are powerful as we are asked in one moment to choose her dress and necklace, like a perverse dress up game, and in the next moment asked if customers have told us to smile more at our jobs. As is always the way for fringe theatre, the small audience took a while to warm up to interacting, with Graham politely smiling her way through the silence. By the end, and as the show’s intensity grew, every femme viewer had played along with enthusiasm, while all of the masculine members of the audience were staring at the ground any time Graham made eye contact.
As a testament to the skill of the creators, the show beautifully toes the line between intending to make the audience uncomfortable and doing it accidentally. On one hand Graham is vulnerable as she shares Lauren’s trauma with the crowd, drawing almost-audible winces from the crowd as she speaks about being followed after work by restaurant patrons.
On the other hand, when Lulu is front and centre, the show is positioned for us to watch her as she works, simulating sex with a blow-up doll and catering to the desires of her paying clients. There is discomfort in that not just from the shock of seeing (simulated) sex up close, but from considering personal use of pornography or chat services, and what the person on the other end of it thinks of us.
Graham is heartfelt yet blunt as she delivers her performance. She is a powerhouse in all elements, from her physicality to her emotional depth, and she is a real joy to watch onstage. Allen’s direction supports the writing and Graham’s energy and serves to deepen the connection between performer and audience. Also successful was the creative usage of video recordings and sound bites throughout the show.
At its core, “Be a Doll, Won’t You?” is a tight, well-written performance that easily hits its high notes with the audience, and Graham shines in front of the crowd. She is a performer to keep an eye on at future festivals!
To note: while there is confronting content in this performance, nothing is included for shock value, though it is important to consider the warnings included by the festival on the show. Additionally, the performance makes use of glitter spray, which while a beautiful effect, was a bit of an eye irritant. If that’s a concern, the second row and back would be good spots to sit!