Try to look away. If you’ve been sucked into The Bachelor franchise ecosystem, whether by way of snarkiness or sincerity, podcasts or spoilers, all you really want is more content.
Paper Doll Ensemble is here to deliver. The one-year-old Philadelphia-based theater company’s mission is to put an absurdist, tragi-comedic feminist spin on familiar female tropes, to devise original dark twists on popular culture’s notions of femininity.
Last year it was a take on the original German fairy tale, Snow White and Rose Red, called “This is How Girls Die.”
This year, it’s The Bachelor, ABC’s runaway pop culture phenomenon now in its 24th season. The Paper Dolls pathway in is through another obsession of Paper Doll’s cofounders, designer Amanda Jensen, 35, and actor/creators Grayce Hoffman, 25, and Sara Vanasse, 28: true crime.
And so, even as current Bachelor Peter Weber flies his planes and ruminates over his ex-girlfriend, Bachelorette Hannah Brown, Paper Dolls Ensemble presents, Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary, opening Friday in the upstairs theater at Plays & Players. (They all watched back on Season 15 together as part of their research).
With the addition of actor Taiwo Sokan, 25, a veteran of Penn’s iconic Bloomers female comedy troupe, Marry Marry presents the story of three Bachelor archetypes: Julie, the villainous schemer; Taylor, the too-smart-and-a-little-desperate-for-this-caffeine-craver; and Bridget, the virginal true believer, away from the cameras.
After the obligatory disastrous cocktail party, the women are sequestered in an attic closet, mainlining a dwindling stash of coffee beans, plotting secret alliances, weaponizing curling irons, and ultimately descending into, well, let’s just say the services of Philly fight choreographer Ren Williams were front and center at a Wednesday night rehearsal.
Can you base a play on The Bachelor and come out the other side with your intellectual, comedic, and feminist bona fides intact?
Grayce Hoffman: Should we even talk about this? That’s something we have struggled with in the creation of this piece 100 percent. Because it is such a national phenomenon, you can’t avoid it. Let’s actually question this and make people think about it. We place responsibility on the audience as to why am I enjoying this? What does that mean, why did I laugh about that?
Amanda Jensen: "One thing we latched onto was the total contradictions. It’s a show about monogamy, marrying this one person, but technically this guy is dating 20 women at one time. We started looking at these contradictions, all these stereotypes these woman are given: the widow, the smart girl, the slutty girl, the villain. We wanted to play with that.
Taiwo Sokan: It’s definitely huge that I watch every single season. Last season, Hannah Brown was the bachelorette. She was kind of a feminist icon. She was a Christian woman, but a Christian woman who was very sex positive. Reality TV inspires a measure of duplicity within the individual. I’m trying to explore not only why TV inspires people to act in duplicitous ways, but what kind of behaviors arise from that?
Jensen: We started to realize there are similarities between The Bachelor TV show and how it’s produced and cults. They’re all in a house together, they’re sleep deprived, they don’t have access to their phones. There’s an interesting parallel with the true crime world and The Bachelor: The set up of all these woman in a house competing for one person’s love and affection, all trying to find out how to just stay on the show. You want to be the last one standing.
Hoffman: It’s so funny: The Bachelor just started Jan. 6. We’ve been watching. The biggest thing is like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a direct line from our show.’ Holy macaroni, we thought we were being so absurdist, but it was spot on.
Sara Vanasse: It’s been disturbing watching this season I’ve got to say. A lot of times, I’m next to my husband [shouting], “I literally say that in the show!” It’s unbelievable. That TV show is becoming a parody of its own self.
The Bachelor is something I’ve personally been obsessed with for a few years and slowly more and more women I know will admit it. And so it’s changed from being this guilty pleasure thing to something people actually have conversations about, like: What is this microcosm of our society? How is it that through pressure and society and expectations we’ve built up, that’s a thing that can exist?
Hoffman: This show is very specifically about the inner workings and alliances of these women. We see the layers peel back. We are playing with the duality of being a woman. What is the face that you put on? Can we even trust what your genuine personality is when you can be so many different versions of yourself?
Vanasse: We are seeing more women who don’t fit the mold. I found it an interesting vehicle for the conversations we have about true crime. Why are we obsessed with these things? It’s that preparation scenario, experiencing vicariously through these women: Oh I wouldn’t do that, here’s what I would do. With the true crime, well, I would never walk alone, here’s how I prepare myself. The imaginary role play and revenge fantasies, I think are present in both phenomena.
Sokan: For me, I’m trying to explore why TV inspires people to act in duplicitous ways, what kind of behaviors arise from trying, why the media wants to make women like that. In doing the research, especially around the fantasy suites, there’s so much they can’t say on TV. We know what the fantasy suite is for, why can’t we say it? In our show we say it.
The feminist aspect of the show comes in what we are willing to say in terms of what is happening on the show and the nature of what type of personality this show brings out in women.
Hoffman: We love [true crime podcast] Dirty John. That was part of it. Eighty percent of the listeners are women. It’s about women being manipulated and violence enacted against women. What is this fascination with watching women be vulnerable and often hurt? In The Bachelor, it’s often emotional, and with true crime, it’s physical. We put those together.
It’s really cathartic to watch other women make these mistakes and be like, “Oh, I would never do that. I would see right through Dirty John, how is she not seeing this?” Because deep down, we’re trying to learn from it. We’re thriving on the drama because it’s not happening to us.
Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary
Paper Doll Ensemble production through Feb. 1 at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey St.