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A Whole Mess of Messages

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Drink Me, or the Strange Case of Alice Times Three

Seanachai Theatre Company

at Prop Thtr

Mary Fengar Gail's whodunit raises the possibility that if she were murdered, the suspects would include several authors from whom she's gleefully nicked ideas. Lewis Carroll, of course, as the play's title implies, and Edward Gorey. Arthur Conan Doyle, who virtually invented the neurotic asexual detective. Toss in some TV writers for The X-Files, Dr. Who, and Midsomer Murders. Starhawk, purveyor of Wicca to the masses, should also be questioned, as should Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, authors of the urtext for sexual-abuse survivors, The Courage to Heal.

The problem is that Gail's comedy, now receiving its local premiere from Seanachai Theatre Company under Kevin Theis's direction, wavers between loving satirical homage to the various genres it apes, genuine murder mystery with sci-fi underpinnings, and quasi-feminist social commentary. That Drink Me works as well as it does is more a testament to Theis and his cunning cast than to Gail's script.

Scotland Yard's detective chief inspector Gordon Granville Fossmire (called "Foss" by his dotty mother, with whom he still lives) is investigating the disappearance of hundreds of transient men from the streets of London. His only clue leads him to three weird sisters, who dress like goth-club denizens, speak in Jacobean vernacular, and devote themselves to collecting buttons. Foss is also bedeviled by nightmares in which his mother, Lady Alice Augusta (or "Gussie"), delivers cannibalistic calls to action in the name of her pet cause, the Zero Population Party. Her targets are always men. It's no wonder that Foss's response to the casual question "Any children?" is to yelp "No!"

It turns out that the girls--Emmaline, Urseline, and Valentine Rime--are the children of Wiccan authority Madeline and lit professor Hugo. Or perhaps not: Madeline is convinced that the girls were conceived when she was abducted and raped by aliens, a belief supported by Madeline's recovered-memory therapist, Dr. Flora Whetstone, also a practitioner of bastardized Celtic rituals.

As Foss delves deeper into the case, his mother gradually becomes convinced that the Rime girls are her "three Alices," imaginary friends and protectors she invented as a response to being sexually abused by her twin brothers, now dead. When Foss hears her theory he's skeptical--as he points out to Dr. Whetstone, his mother has had "more breakdowns than my Jag." But when the numbers of missing men burgeon and start to include respectable citizens, his suspicions begin to accord with Gussie's, even as his attraction to Dr. Whetstone grows.

Underneath all the witty ripostes and creaky sci-fi and psychological thriller machinations, Gail seems to have a serious point to make about the spiraling karmic costs of retribution. There might also be a message about the disposability of human life, particularly among the poor and homeless. (Hundreds of men disappearing from the streets of London isn't so far-fetched when one considers the abduction-murders of more than 400 women in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez over the past decade.)

However, Gail wants both comic distance and convincing dysfunctions that have an emotional impact. When Gussie talks about her childhood rape with her son, she also comments, "You can't see a play without some vulgar revelation." Inevitably the audience laughs. But Gail certainly deserves points for trying to look at well-worn issues in new ways. In fairness, I can't think of any playwright outside of the Theater Oobleck cadre who might successfully combine the wildly disparate themes and influences she's introduced here.

The end is morally soggy, but the journey features plenty of highlights. Wendy Robie--who gave a ballsy performance as "Mommy" in Wes Craven's cult favorite The People Under the Stairs--is marvelous as Gussie, particularly in the chilling dream-sequence monologues that kick off both acts. Robie expertly negotiates Gussie's transition from seemingly sensible philanthropist to fascistic proponent of male genocide. And despite an uncertain accent, Michael Grant nails Foss's befuddlement and self-pity. Stefanie Neuhauser, Carolyn Klein, and Christy Arington are convincingly synchronous as the sisters, and their harmonizing on various nursery rhymes is both winsome and creepy.

The long, narrow gallery of the Prop space makes for some staging challenges, which Theis and set designer Rebecca Hamlin overcome by creating three distinct playing areas almost like dioramas. These represent the otherworldly home of the sisters, Foss and Gussie's warm if fussy abode, and a stark, cold Scotland Yard office.

It's odd that one of Gail's characters should observe that "detachment is the plague of the future": as a playwright, she's wholly detached from her characters. That's not so unusual for parody, but she's freighted Drink Me with sorrowful tales of abuse. Her aim may be to take the audience down a rabbit hole of moral complexity, but in the end we get stuck in the mud.

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