Alice the Magnet
nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
June 11, 2006
Have you ever squirmed uncomfortably under the relentless gaze of an actor breaking the fourth wall? With all due respect to Brecht, don't you secretly, fervently, wish that he or she would just save all the prodding and goading for the other characters onstage—and let you quietly skulk back into your blissfully anonymous darkness?
Me? I'm a "flight" over "fight" kinda gal every time.
Fortunately, Clubbed Thumb's production of Erin Courtney's Alice the Magnet won't let us off the hook that easily. Even after the eponymous Alice, presenting her renowned self-help seminar, releases us from a visualization exercise (and the house lights mercifully dim!) we can still expect to be confronted and challenged by this provocative play.
In a nuanced performance by Sheri Graubert, Alice is the epitome of anodyne eloquence, her soothing cadence and measured, self-assured gestures nearly a parody of all those "viewers' choice" gurus that flood PBS during pledge week. Cannily costumed by Kirche Leigh Zeile, Alice's presentation is one of thoroughly "evolved" clarity, and when she inquires serenely if we "feel fear," we're eager to believe that the faint whiff of snake oil might instead be some fragrant variety of green tea.
And what could provide a more dire juxtaposition to this polished perfection than poor, befuddled schoolteacher Louise? Disheveled in appearance and wildly scattered in demeanor, Louise deals with her personal demons by anesthetizing them. Fueled by caffeine and alcohol, her palpable anxiety renders her ideal prey for a classroom full of circling adolescent jackals. When, in the third scene, newly unemployed Louise and her most unruly student, Arthur, each wind up working for Alice's multi-million-dollar operation, we're riveted by the promise of imminent transformation.
And transformation we get. Unspooling an intricate choreography of contrasting personas, Courtney doesn't settle for mere issues, but plunges unflinchingly into the riskier realm of ideas. Essentially she offers us an examination of opposites, but the inherent tension of thesis-versus-antithesis never evaporates into dry debate. Hope versus fear, compassion versus power, altruism versus greed are all explored—while external, often arbitrary, forces shape these characters in ways that no hard-won "clarity" will ever completely combat.
After a terrifying skirmish with fans forces Alice to regroup, Louise and Arthur—along with Alice's beleaguered assistant John (the spot-on Quentin Mare)—must struggle on without their mentor's addictive guidance. That Louise undergoes an absolute metamorphosis is narratively inevitable; that Courtney refuses to reduce her to an Alice-clone is dramatically exhilarating. In a subtle and detailed portrayal by Maria Dizzia, Louise learns how to confront fear, all right, but her versions of "clarity" and "solutions" grow far more ruthlessly "evolved" than anything the compassionate Alice ever articulated.
Directed with precision by Pam MacKinnon, the cast mines every last recess of messy ambiguity, exploiting the premise that nothing, save perhaps a direction on a magnetic compass, has a true polar opposite. Are fear and hope diametrically opposed, or merely two sides of one coin? Are flight and fight the only options, or can fear also induce paralysis? Are greed and philanthropy mutually exclusive, or, in fact, covertly symbiotic? The elusive "synthesis" might prove less a "solution," and more a deeply conflicted—and profoundly human—compromise after all.
Which brings us back to troubled, idealistic Arthur (Cohlie Brocato), whose moral expansion provides one of the evening's more theatrical moments. Arthur's journey is the only one we're permitted to observe years later, and it's he who delivers the play's final line: an invitation to identify our "greatest fear" and our "greatest hope."
Which, if you've been paying any attention while passively sitting in the dark, inspires an entirely different sort of squirming—one from which there's no easy flight after the curtain descends.