Local theater troop turns rage into art with ‘The Pecking Order’

The Pecking Order
Pictured are (from left) Sara Vanasse, Simha Toledano, Grayce Hoffman and Marcia Ferguson.

Founded in order to create “devised absurdist comedies” that touch on socially and politically conscious current events, Philadelphia’s Paper Doll Ensemble theater troop does not mess around. Ever.

Along with tearing down the patriarchy with its dark satire on ‘The Bachelor’ television franchise with 2020’s ‘Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary’ — which was the last time PDE founders and members Grayce Hoffman, Marcia Ferguson, Sara Vanasse, Simha Toledano, Chad Haddad and Amanda Jensen were onstage— the Paper Dolls have held online Zoom forums on the subject of ‘The Cult of Trump,’ hosted Clubhouse discussion groups about anti-racism, and produced digital Fringe programming on witches and politics, ‘The WASP’s Nest.’

Now there is ‘The Pecking Order’, the first staging of PDE’s new Roe V. Wade tragicomedy at Plays & Players Skinner Studio.

“Seems like the last time we were onstage was ages ago and our time away brought a lot of life changes for the group,” says Hoffman.

Time, however, strengthened the group and helped shape their talents into roles within the PDE.

“Sara’s background is in clown and movement with Pig Iron, so having her perform is a no-brainer, but she’s also a wonderful graphic artist and does our poster designs, playbills and designed our logo,” explains Hoffman. “Amanda is a talented lighting designer, so she’s the technical eye in the group who also does our contracts and finances. My passion for acting lands me on the stage, and my skill in marketing and PR means I handle that, too.”

At the beginning of 2022, PDE scheduled in-person time to “roll on the floor,” and improvise source material they had in their collective back pocket to pinpoint the direction of their next show.

That is how ‘The Pecking Order’ came into play, boiling up from what PDE state was the “grief and disbelief” after the leaked decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and inspired by the wife and daughters of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who penned the original opinion. That women’s rights were “being thrust back in time” was worthy of Paper Dolls ire.

“We were completely crushed, jumped in our group chat, and agreed we HAD to make a show about abortion,” notes Hoffman. “We were planning to make an exploration of “How to Be A Woman” set in 1960s debutante culture. But when the decision was announced, we instantly switched gears. In fact, Sara said ‘right now all I want to do is stand on stage and scream ‘abortion is a human right’ for one hour,’ and I couldn’t agree more.”

Challenging themselves to work towards making a piece that wouldn’t be as radically alienating as a primal scream, and had the power to change minds about abortion rights became the goal of ‘The Pecking Order.’ Looking at the manner in which the SCOTUS decision was hilarious and hurtful at the same time, ‘The Pecking Order’ became a “light-hearted exploration of some really serious sh*t,” said Hoffman.

As to focusing ‘The Pecking Order’ on the wife and daughters of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, PDE have set about something of a juicy revenge fantasy worthy of the most caustic-ever punchline.

“In exploring how we could turn abortion rights into a play, we discovered that Justice Blackmun had three daughters and an incredible wife that he mentions were influential while he wrote the Roe v. Wade opinion,” stated Hoffman. “So we wondered what a night at the Blackmun household might look like in 1972. Is that suddenly very similar to a night in 2022? Even more interesting, Blackmun’s middle daughter got pregnant in college and dropped out to marry the father, only to later miscarry. She divorced her husband 6 years later. She would make a fantastic character, but we also wanted to be respectful to the family. So we used our research as inspiration and have extrapolated them into a definite work of fiction.”

With direction and writing credit given to the entire PDE crew, the script to ‘The Pecking Order’ is largely a compilation of transcriptions from their group improvisations edited together—via screen share and Zoom— and is still considered a work-in-progress.

“We use comedy to build a strong relationship with our audience so they feel safe enough to handle the issues we’re throwing their way,” says Hoffman of the Paper Doll Ensemble’s portraiture of women’s rights.

And what do PDE say to women who have an opposite viewpoint to their own? To women who cherish anti-abortion rights?

“Come see the show.”

‘The Pecking Order’ hits the stage at Plays & Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place, from Dec. 8 – 10. Tickets are available online

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