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Theater Review - Rock lobster

Salvador Dali turns March Hare in Lobster Alice

Synchronicity Performance Group discovers in Kira Obolensky's play Lobster Alice that Salvador Dali and Alice in Wonderland go together like hand in glove. Or should that be, I dunno, teacup in umbrella? The surrealist painter and the Lewis Carroll classic both traffic in dreamlike nonsense: a cat disappearing on a tree branch isn't that different from a clock melting on one.

Obolensky doesn't have to contrive a way to put Dali alongside Wonderland — it happened in real life. In 1946, Dali spent six weeks in Hollywood working on a commission for Disney to help animate the studio's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Surrealism was in the air at Burbank.

Lobster Alice offers a fictitious speculation of Dali's stay, while never mentioning the Disney name. Obolensky's script and Synchronicity's production fully and delightedly exploit the premise's call for wild effects, but Lobster Alice turns out to have a wispy, conventional story, further diminished by some problematic performances.

Lobster begins with a classic crutch for starting a stage play: a one-sided phone conversation. At a studio office, secretary Alice Horowitz (Hope Mirlis) places an order from a mysterious list of artist's requirements that includes a hookah, a jug, a box of ants and the remnants of a 1964 Chevrolet (yes, 1964). It's a playful hint of things to come, although Mirlis makes the familiar error of speaking more quickly than someone having an actual conversation.

Mirlis' clipped, chirpy delivery fits with the rapid pace director Michele Pearce sets for the play, which has all the elements of a screwball comedy. Certainly, Alice's boss, animator John Finch (Brad Brooks), seems like he needs loosening up. A buttoned-down company man whose artistic ideas tend to be too "vanilla," Finch frets about his impending job as Dali's company liaison.

When Dali (Randy Cohlmia) makes the scene — appearing as if by magic from behind the office hat-rack — he lives up to his flamboyant reputation. Cohlmia looks the part with his prominent nose and erect handlebar mustache. His Dali stands with the rigid posture of a matador, makes a magician's hand gesture when speaking, and sweeps through the Californians' lives with hurricane force. And he speaks in an anguished accent: He dislikes his hotel room because "carpet is the sorse of all sinoose infekshuns."

The studio has hired Dali to develop an animated ballet based on the song "You Tempt Me," but he'd rather talk about pleasure (or "play-zurr") and the personal lives of Alice and Finch. He's like the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and all the rest of the Wonderland gang rolled into one. At one point, he holds a magnifying glass to his face and grins maniacally like the Cheshire Cat.

The play has an Alice, but the character that really falls down the rabbit hole is Finch. Brooks initially looks like a mild-mannered Mr. Peepers in his bow tie and big glasses, but Dali's presence — and his unexpressed love for Alice — increasingly tears down his reserve. By the play's end he's a nervous wreck, but he's also in touch with his feelings.

Ultimately, Lobster Alice is about how a colorful "life-force" figure teaches ordinary Americans to shed their inhibitions, a storyline that could easily fit a contemporary, live-action Disney film. Mirlis and Cohlmia inadvertently support that interpretation. Mirlis makes Alice more a likable oddball than a character we empathize with. At one point she admits to having wept through the weekend, but she speaks in an upbeat tone while sharpening a pencil, making the moment funny, not serious.

Cohlmia makes Dali so mannered that he's a presence without quite being a person. Granted, Dali was as devoted to cultivating his public persona as he was to creating art, and you'd be disappointed if Dali didn't go over the top. But we never get a sense of the "real" Dali beneath the cuckoo behavior and have to work overtime getting used to that accent. Cohlmia's best moment comes when Dali describes his vision for the "You Tempt Me" film, a visionary tableau that's not only vividly written but conveys the passions that motivate the artist.

Lobster Alice finds partial redemption in a dream scene (we don't know whose) which has Mirlis in a kinky Alice in Wonderland dress, dancing a modified tango with the Caterpillar, played by Clifton "Bat Boy" Guterman, who wears green tights, a codpiece and four extra arms that envelop Mirlis in a carnal clench.

The play's other funhouse tricks prove persistently entertaining. Lobsters and oversized props litter the floor. At one point, Finch addresses Alice's huge shadow, evoking Wonderland's "drink me" transformations. But Lobster Alice at times feels like a missed opportunity, its plot lacking the staying power of Dali and Lewis Carroll's images. At best, it offers a diverting visit to a curiosity shop.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com