Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat

The Jungle Theater sends Salvador Dali through a looking glass in Lobster Alice; 15 Head presents Dracula as a messenger of modern anxiety

When Salvador Dali first landed in America in 1934, he brought with him a portrait of a nude woman with lamb chops for shoulders. Naturally curious about the juxtaposition of meat and flesh, observers asked him the meaning of the painting. "Very simple," Dali replied. "I love her and I love lamb chops. Here they are together. Perfect harmony." The simple notion at the core of Dali's art--that the arrangement of familiar symbols in unfamiliar patterns may open the floodgates of the unconscious--is also at the heart of Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice, now making its premiere at the Jungle Theater under the auspices of director Bain Boehlke. Obolensky imagines Dali's brief 1946 stint at Walt Disney's animation studio during the creation of Alice in Wonderland as just such a nexus; like lobsters and women, the playwright blends Americana and Spanish Surrealism. As in Dali's paintings, the result is wonderful and entirely unexpected--or, as Alice says during her adventure down the rabbit's hole, curiouser and curiouser.

Obolensky, a local playwright who has received much-deserved national attention for Lobster Alice, hit upon the play's ingenious scenario while researching The Architecture of Reassurance, a Walker exhibit celebrating Walt Disney's expansive and hyperrealistic vision of American life. Though Dali did indeed work with Disney (and even got a ride on the über-Mouseketeer's miniature backyard locomotive), Obolensky drops the flamboyant artist into the tidy office of a meek animator named John Finch (Bob Davis). Here in beautiful, bland Burbank, Finch and his assistant, Alice Horowitz (Julie Briskman Hall), are slaving away to bring Lewis Carroll's tale to the screen. (In a characteristically intelligent touch, John bears some resemblance to Sir John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Carroll's Alice books, whose skewed perspective was the result of a childhood eye injury. Finch's myopia, though, is of a more metaphysical sort).

Hooray for Daliwood: The eccentric surrealist (Charles Schuminski) and friends in Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice
Hooray for Daliwood: The eccentric surrealist (Charles Schuminski) and friends in Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice

As Carroll made a muse of ten-year-old Alice Liddell, Finch has his Alice Horowitz. And despite some unresolved romantic tension, the two co-exist as happily as the Carpenter and the Walrus. Then Dali (Charles Schuminski) sashays into the office, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, waxing his ridiculous mustache, and trailing an apparently inexhaustible supply of red scarves. He has been commissioned, we learn, to illustrate an "animated ballet" to a popular sentimental tune. All at once, large crimson lobsters begin appearing on desks and chairs, clocks melt off of cabinets, and Finch's rigorously demarcated reality begins to crumble. With his slippery wit and slipperier sexuality, Dali poses an immediate challenge to Finch's concept of the imagination as a "clean, pinstriped, smut-free thing." So, too, Dali draws Alice from her shell. Doors open, quite literally, in the walls of the office, and like her namesake tumbling down the rabbit hole, Alice falls headlong into a wonderland where the narrow aspirations of Middle America give way to a world of greater possibilities.

In imagining Dali, Obolensky takes a considerable risk. The artist's eccentric public persona was, after all, his most enduring creation--he often gave lectures while outfitted as a deep-sea diver and once held a press conference from a lounge chair hanging in a tree. While Obolensky's Dali might easily become a flamboyant caricature of Dali's flamboyant character, the playwright manages to create a complex personality who, despite his practiced sang-froid and penchant for paradoxical rambling, is both immediately likable and essentially inscrutable. When, in the play's climax, Dali leaps onto Alice's desk to describe his vision of the animated ballet in a dazzling rush of imagery, Obolensky does more to capture the artist's peculiar genius than could a library full of academic treatises.

Yet Dali is not Obolensky's most vibrant creation. It is, rather, Finch who emerges at the center of Lobster Alice. Davis, exuding the effortless charm of a young Bob Hope, reacts to Dali's grand rhetorical flourishes with such understated humor that while his character is an essentially passive personality--the straight man--he also becomes the most familiar of archetypes: the goodhearted, slightly provincial, and endlessly befuddled American innocent. "I was like an animal," he tells Alice during a recreation of their abbreviated romantic encounter. "You were like a mouse," she answers. Then, without missing a beat, he declares: "A mouse is an animal."

It is a mark of Obolensky's sophistication as a playwright that every motif flows from her central meditation on the nature of imagination. Dali's melting clocks, for instance, famous from "The Persistence of Memory," are intertwined with Carroll's white rabbit, forever late for a very important date, and Finch's habit of constantly checking his pocket watch despite having nowhere to go. The omnipresent lobsters, too, seemingly a comedic non sequitur in early scenes, become a symbol of Finch's expanding vision (and, in a nod to Dali's lamb-chop-garnished nude, Alice does indeed appear with pincers for arms).

After a orgiastic whirlwind of creativity, Finch and Alice are once again left sitting in their trim office, now cluttered with bird cages and clocks and crustaceans. The artist is gone, and his animated masterpiece destined for a dusty Disney storeroom, but the corollary floodgates of imagination and desire have burst. Genius, Obolensky concludes, leaves beauty in its wake.

 

Like so many artists working in the shadow of Freud, Salvador Dali was preoccupied with sex, death, and the occasional intersections of the two. The duality of Eros and Thanatos--or, more euphemistically, little death and Big Death--was also a distinctly Victorian notion, and it popped up in everything from Wilkie Collins's oeuvre to Bram Stoker's Dracula, now in its latest incarnation courtesy of director Julia Fischer and 15 Head. There is considerable potential in the meeting of 15 Head, an adventurous troupe with an often brilliant theatrical sensibility, and Stoker's tale, with its Gothic trappings and sexual subtext.

In the opening tableau, a languid 15 Head cast is frozen around what appears to be a crypt done over with a metallic veneer (another evocatively skewed set by Joe Stanley). The actors, too, seem to have dropped out of different time periods. Mary Anna Culligan's costuming, which ranges from Victorian haute couture to Blade Runner dystopian chic, gives each character a distinct color scheme: Doomed Dr. Seward (Jon Micheels Leiseth) wears unhealthy yellow; Mina (Jaidee Forman) cool blue. Poor Renfield (Leif Jurgensen), meanwhile, is dressed in rags and locked in a cage suspended from the rafters. As the lights dim, the actors break their freeze and begin wandering about the stage, whispering breathy incantations.

Though this Dracula seems at first a rather bloodless affair, 15 Head's creepy aesthetic quickly takes over. In the play's best scene, the titular fiend (an acrobatic Nathan Carlton) literally drops from the shadows above the stage to ravish Lucy (Kat Bottorff). In Fischer's reading, the vampire is less a sexual predator than a silent manifestation of some preexisting anxiety, and his appearance comes almost as an afterthought to the existential dread that seems to hang over everyone involved. Which is not to say that this Draculasucks: The count may not have the same bite as the caped Lothario of lore, but he leaves his mark nonetheless.

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