Terror in the theater: Play deals in dolls and dread

Posted: Thursday, August 07, 2003

Like any director, Joe Rizzo hopes to have many eyes watching the performances of his new play. In that respect, he's starting out ahead of the game, since he already has 130 sets of eyes staring at his set every time his actors take the stage.

However, Rizzo hopes to have many more eyes show up when the play opens tonight; eyes that aren't small, beady and slightly psychotic.

Rizzo's play, "The Doll Collec-tion," opens tonight at 8 at Soldotna High School Auditorium and runs Friday, Aug. 14, 15 and 16 at 8 each night.

In the play, Cindy returns home when her estranged mother dies. The two had always had a dysfunctional relationship, because her mother gave more care and attention to her massive collection of dolls than she did to Cindy.

"So obviously I don't really like them like resentment," said Sarah McAuliffe, who plays Cindy.

Cindy's best friend, Denise, arrives to give emotional support while Cindy settles her mother's affairs.

Though Cindy doesn't want anything to do with the dolls, she discovers the dolls may want something to do with her. As odd events happen around the house and start to unnerve Cindy more and more, Denise is left wondering whether it's just the stress getting to Cindy, or whether the dolls are really as innocuous as she thinks they are.

To complicate matters further, Cindy's family's lawyer, Ted Newport, and his assistant, Catherine Campbell, develop an interest in the dolls that may not be as genuine it seems.

Adding to the intrigue of the plot is the eerie mood set by elaborate special effects and a detailed set, including 130 dolls collected from antique stores, thrift shops and people's attics that stare out blankly from every nook and cranny available.


Denise, played by Ramona Baker, is comforted by Catherine Campbell, played by Lori Stevens, after an unnerving experience.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

"You'll be on the edge of your seat all the time," said Ramona Baker, who plays Denise.

"It goes beyond entertainment it's involving," added Tom Lassen, who plays Ted Newport.

Writing and directing a suspenseful thriller was a first for Rizzo, who has written and staged several musicals, comedies and dramas in the central Kenai Peninsula, especially at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, where he is an English teacher and the Drama, Debate and Forensics coach.

"This is probably one of the most unique plays to come to this area," McAuliffe said. "... Everything is always safe, and this play is not."

The impetus for "The Doll Collection" came from a DDF trip to Haines that Rizzo took his team on last school year. They stayed at a bed and breakfast in a turn-of-the-century house that made a perfect venue for late-night ghost stories.

Rizzo told the students a story from when he was a kid about a friend's sister, named Cindy, who was brushing her hair in front of a mirror one night and heard her name called. When she looked in the mirror, a doll that had been sitting across the room was no longer visible. When Cindy went to the door to leave the room, she looked down and the doll was at her feet.

"That story so freaked out the kids we thought it would be a really fun premise for a play," Rizzo said.

On the drive back to the peninsula after the meet, Rizzo and the team worked out the plot for "The Doll Collection" in 45 minutes, he said. After that, it took him a day and a half to write the rough draft of the script and four months to put the show together.

"It was very different from anything I've written before," Rizzo said. "The play is multilayered. It's very complex in the story line and the motivation of the different characters. It's the most complex thing I've ever written.

Writing a thriller was a fun, if challenging, change of pace for Rizzo.

"Suspense is difficult to write because you have to craft it carefully in order to get the effect you're trying to achieve," he said.

Acting in a suspenseful play can be challenging as well, especially when Rizzo is at the helm.

"It's been very intense for me because, obviously, when Joe needs motivation from you, he'll get it any way he can," McAuliffe said, even if that means hiding behind the set to scare actors when they least expect it. "Overall this has pushed my limits more than any other play I've been in."

Most plays Rizzo writes and directs are meant for high school theater. For "The Doll Collection," however, Rizzo recruited older, more seasoned actors as his cast. McAuliffe, a former student of Rizzo's, is now a theater student and seeking her computer science and business degrees at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash. Lassen, a familiar face in many of Nikiski's past shows, is now studying law and is on the DDF team at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Lori Stevens, who plays Newport's assistant, and Terry Burdick, who plays Denise's aunt Connie, are adults with backgrounds in community theater.

Baker, who is entering her senior year in Nikiski, is the youngest of the cast, but has a long list of theater credits and years on the Nikiski DDF team under her belt.

"Every person in this is a pretty accomplished actor or actress and they're doing a really great job with complex characters," Rizzo said.

Admission for "The Doll Collection" is $5.

Due to its frightening nature and special effects,the show is not recommended for small children.

Anyone who enjoys Hitchcock movies or episodes of "The Twilight Zone," however, is encouraged to come watch.

The dolls will.

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