It undersells William Donnelly’s Painted Alice to call it a blend of Lewis Carroll and Yasmina Reza, but I’m damned if I can think of a more apt description. Like the paintbrush-clutching title character in Donnelly’s flat-out hilarious comedy, I’ve been staring at a blank screen for far too long. Deadlines are passing, inspiration isn’t striking, and the folks who’ve hired me are growing increasingly impatient. Alas, though, my laptop isn’t likely to swallow me and spit me out in another world the way Alice’s canvas does.
So: Imagine the children’s author and the Pop Art playwright commingling art and absurdity while characters tumble down rabbit holes and deconstruct blank canvases. Blend a young woman’s journey of discovery with a jaundiced view of the contemporary-art scene and you have Donnelly’s starting point. Take airhead critics, know-nothing patrons, and insecure painters, and turn them into the art-world equivalent of Mad Hatters, hookah-smoking caterpillars, and talking teapots, and you have his method. Ask designers to provide a fantasy world on a shoestring, and encourage performers to run riot through it, and you have a rough approximation of the approach taken by director Jeremy Skidmore. But only a rough approximation, because that laundry list of details barely hints at the giddy, giggly, jabberwackiness of the Theater Alliance’s color-saturated world premiere.
The color isn’t there at first. As the lights come up, Alice is lying upside-down in an armchair in an all-white studio. She’s listening to a self-actualizing tape, and when she’s convinced herself she’s thoroughly pumped, she grabs her paintbrush and strides purposefully toward her canvas, only to veer away at the last second. She swerves just as firmly from the comfort her lover, Dinah, offers, and from the increasing impatience of Parker, the demanding patron who commissioned the painting that is so resolutely not taking shape on her studio wall.
When crossed, Parker’s quick with a zinger (“I shouldn’t compare what you do and what he doesapples and crabapples”), so it doesn’t help that she feels double-crossed by Alice. So does Dinah, who gets so frustrated by Alice’s neglect (“I can do comfort, solace, support, but I cannot do doormat”) that she goes out with another artist.
At which point Alice begins to fear that her synapses are misfiring. Her self-help tape starts telling her she’s worthless, the walls start undulating, and in a nice bit of scenic legerdemain by designer Tony Cisek, her blank canvas becomes a portal that whisks her from white-on-white stagnation to a rainbow-splashed wonderland. That world is populated by all manner of oddly familiar creatures: a tea party’s worth of artists and arts aficionados; a mallet-wielding queen of collectors, to whom modernist paintings are just “squiggles and farts”; a nonsense-spouting critic named Vermiller (a blend of “Vermeer” and “caterpillar”?), who informs Alice haughtily that “a propensity for fucked-uptitude is an artist’s greatest asset.”
There are othersamong them, a preening, purring, Christmas-light-festooned painter whose bulbs fade as she speaks and a pair of feuding, flip-flop-wearing, crockery-resembling artists called Sugar and Sucreyou get the drift. And while there are plenty of nifty understated parallels to Alice in Wonderland (Dinah is the name of Alice’s cat, remember), I should probably let you discover them for yourself. Suffice it to say that costumer Kate Turner-Walker has attired a supporting cast of four blithely hilarious shape-shifters in dynel wigs, electrified leotards, and shimmering garbage-bag blouses enough to stock a big-city Halloween bash, and that Skidmore has instructed them to go for broke in tormenting Kathleen Coons’ sweet, plucky Alice at every possible opportunity.
And they do. Mando Alvarado is variously hilarious playing everything from a crayon sketch of a bearded merman to a dull-witted artist who’s doing a 112-work series of paintings of a sore on his left thigh. Jason Lott is a hoot as a power-crazed hick doing museum-guard duty, a disillusioned back-to-basics sculptor who’s gotten exactly what he thought he wanted, and a shrilly self-confident painter whose voice could etch glass. Rena Cherry Brown differentiates neatly among the critical patrons and patronizing critics in her gallery of snippy bitch-goddesses. And Diane Cooper-Gould proves capable of turning on a dimeshe’s briskly amusing as several Wonderland denizens, nicely affecting as Alice’s neglected real-world partner.
Donnelly’s script is deft enough, and Skidmore’s staging imaginative enough, that you’ll likely wish they’d had a bigger budget for physical effects. Still, the show is up on its feet and bouncing so vibrantly that it’s easy to see why there’s talk of an off-Broadway mounting. It was only a year ago that the Theater Alliance opened the H Street Playhouse, becoming the first professional repertory theater in decades to call Northeast Washington home. That it should be spawning a potential commercial hit so quickly has to be counted a major accomplishment. Certainly, if you haven’t already discovered the company, now’s the time.
Speaking of discoveries, I’ve somehow missed the Rorschach Theatre’s earlier productions, but after catching the company’s ambitious mounting of Master and Margarita, I’ll make it a point not to let future shows slip past me. Working from an adaptation by Jean-Claude van Itallie of Mikhail Bulgakov’s modernist classic about a besieged Soviet author and the lover who makes a pact with the devil to free him from state oppression, Rorschach has created a smart, quasi-Brechtian evening, filled with music-hall flourishes and considerable theatrical ingenuity.
Scott Graham plays the Master, who is imprisoned in an asylum when he tries to get a state that opposes religious expression to publish a book depicting Pontius Pilate and Jesus as complex, thoughtful figures. In the natural course of things, his book would never see the light of day; nor, obviously, would he (a predicament mirroring Bulgakov’s own in ’30s Moscowwhich is why Master and Margarita wasn’t published until three decades after his death).
But the natural course of things gets disrupted by the arrival in Moscow of Woland (Tim Getman), a mysterious fellow of indeterminate age and origin, who seems to have powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. In fact, he’s the Devil, come to stage his annual ball in a town that doesn’t believe in hells that aren’t man-made. Surrounded by Beelzebubbly cohortsa broad-shouldered demon, a punning cat, a vampiresshe offers Margarita her lover’s freedom if she’ll be queen of his ball.
In Jenny McConnell’s staging, scenes begin with vaudeville title cards, and the action jumps reasonably briskly between Stalinist Moscow and the court of Pilate in Jerusalem some 2000 years earlier. Given Rorschach’s limited budget and church-hall setting, the physical production is bigger than is really wise: Expressionist drapes and huge swinging doors open to reveal fully furnished rooms at audience level; other scenes take place on a raised stage at one end of the hall or high up in a choir loft. Just getting from one spot to another behind all this theatrical bric-a-brac sometimes takes the actors long moments that are only partly finessed by Matthew Frederick’s Cirque du Soleil-esque score. The novel’s flights of fancy (at one point, a literal flight from street level to a stratosphere dotted with heavenly orbs) are handled inventively, if not with any particular polish.
Still, if the troupe’s visual reaching exceeds its grasp (it’ll be interesting to see how the Synetic Theater, a troupe trafficking in mimetic flourishes rather than scenic ones, adapts this same material next spring), the acting is proficient around the edges, and quite sharp at center. Especially fine are Lindsay Allen’s tormented, often funny Margarita (applying a devilishly satisfying skin cream, she registers sensations that are amusingly orgasmic), Graham’s appealingly vulnerable and principled Master, and Chris Davenport’s pensive, troubled Pilate, whose attempts to understand powers greater than those of man and state anchor the evening. CP