Subcultures are delightful for a number of reasons: They have specific aesthetic codes that lend themselves to in-depth studies and they foster a sense of community among people who partake in them, who are usually marginalized from mainstream culture for being, for lack of a better term, “weird.” Most visual or literary works that explore these subcultures are delightfully nerdy, yet in some very fortunate instances, they manage to bring universal themes to the fore.
This is the case of Reborning, a play by Zayd Dohrn now playing at the Soho Playhouse.
Reborning centers on Kelly (Emily Bett Rickards) a formally trained sculptor specializing in “reborn dolls,” lifelike infant-looking dolls that, through layers of paint and textures, are made to appear hyperrealistic. The art of reborn dolls is a business that low-key started on eBay in the 1990s that has since amassed a cult following. Kelly lives with her boyfriend Daizy (Paul Piaskowski) another classically trained sculptor who creates latex toys. The play’s events are set in motion when Kelly has to satisfy the demands of Emily (Lori Triolo), a high-powered lawyer and very demanding client, who wants Kelly to recreate the most accurate reproduction possible of Eva, a daughter who died in infancy. The unique dynamic with her client shaped by the work that is expected of her prompts Kelly to question her own sense of self, both as a person and as an artist.
I want to be upfront about what made me seek out the play in the first place. A couple of years ago, an Italian influencer whose mission consists of exposing and mocking anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and extremely holistic and regressive ideas of motherhood, created a series of blog posts, about a group of women who used reborn dolls for a variety of reasons. One, for example, who claimed to be a single mother who had been abandoned by her partner, wanted the doll to have a moving story to tell a suitor. These women would also steal clothes that had been donated to their churches to dress what they refer to as their “special child.” While entertaining at first, it progressively unveiled some dark scenarios. I was curious to see if Reborning would make me both cackle and reflect.
It did. At first, Kelly’s boyfriend Daizy repeatedly refers to the dolls with the blanket name “Chucky,” ridiculing their creepy appearance, but Dohrn clearly points out that reborn dolls are collectible artifacts that require an inordinate amount of skill to be crafted. In a way, they are on a par with art dolls marketed to adults. And while it’s easy to fawn over fashion-forward art dolls such as Marina Bychkova’s creations, which are de facto mixed-media sculptures, combining fabric, gold-plated metals, and even gemstones, or Joshua David McKenney’s Pidgin Dolls that artfully embody a rococo, cabaret, kawaii and contemporary-fashion aesthetic, reborn dolls have a history of raising eyebrows. Complete with hyper-realistic details such as dry patches of skin, real hair, and a feel that mimics a real baby’s weight, they easily come across as straight-up creepy. However, now the art world is finally catching up on their artistic merit, and Youtube videos devoted to reborn dolls now amass millions of views.
What sets reborn dolls apart from other art dolls though, is the emotional weight they carry for the owners. “People do collect them for all sorts of reasons,” Kelly explains to Daizy. Indicating a doll, she says, “This girl is having her birthday party next month. Her mom wants to remember her, as a baby, in three dimensions. Like taking a lock of hair, bronzing the first shoes, or … whatever.” People who lost a child in infancy turn to reborn dolls as part of their therapeutic process. Cuddling one or holding it can trigger a release of oxytocin.
And while Reborning does touch on these implications with perhaps an overly dramatic, almost 1990s-network-television-after-school-special flair, where it really shines is in its quite accurate representation of what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. Kelly and Daizy, both RISD-educated sculptors, are not creating work based on their thorough education, but, in order to make a living, adapting their skills to market demands. While Kelly crafts reborn dolls for clients ranging from grieving parents, to empty nesters to upcoming retirees about to receive a “fun” gift, Daizy, aside from working as a teacher’s assistant, sculpts hyper-realistic dildos.
The play also delves into the all-consuming nature of an art practice. While what Kelly and Daizy do just seems like a trade, a kind of day job, at one point Kelly — eager to meet the expectations of the very demanding Emily — lets her practice progressively consume all areas of her life, neglecting eat, sleep, and personal hygiene. She becomes fixated on making the doll’s eyes more life-like, and this becomes a Sisyphean task that makes her makes her engage in behaviors that are usually ascribed to the “tortured artist” cliché, going all the way to completely identifying herself with her works, that is, lose her sanity. Thankfully, Dohrn’s writing and Rickards acting avoid glamorizing this spiral, and instead focus on the trauma Kelly has been carrying her whole life, thus making her struggles about her art and life believable and concrete, instead of lofty and somehow romantic.
In the span of 90 minutes, Reborning explores the meaning of art, grief, and trauma, both personal and inter-generational, all through the lens of reborn dolls. It could have been overkill, but it’s a pleasantly disquieting ride, devoid — thank God — of gratuitous, doll-themed horror visuals.