LA JOLLA, California—Moxie Theatre is truly a theatre company that lives up to its name. This young company has been chosen by the La Jolla Playhouse to become the second up and coming (homeless for now but in the Fall will be taking over the Rolando Space once occupied by Cygnet) company to have tenure at the Playhouse using all the accoutrements available to them via the Playhouse.
The two-year-old program was launched by artistic director Christopher Ashley and has as its aim to encourage young companies without permanent homes to reach the heights of their artistic development. All this allows being in residency for a year, having a space to mount shows, (the black box theatre in back of the Mandell Weiss Forum), access to publicity by the playhouse along with administrative and production support. Lighting, sound designers available to them and possibly new audiences as well are giving Moxie an opportunity to explore avenues it might not have had the budget to do on its own.
The mission of Moxie Theatre is to ‘expand the idea of what is feminine by using the intimate art of theatre to create more honest and diverse female images for our culture.' A good definition of Moxie would be ‘courage combined with inventiveness,' They define it as courage, pluck, gumption, perseverance and guts. In my world of Yiddish definitions, Chutzpah fits the bill or a softer note in Hebrew ‘ometz lev’, courage of the heart. Let’s just say that its recent choice of Mary Fengar Gail’s Drink Me or The Strange Case of Alice Times Three required lots of guts, pluck, ambition and well, Moxie, something this little theatre group never shies away from.
Nailing down just what this story is about is about as convoluted as the play itself. Billed as a black comedy and co directed by founding mothers Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and Jennifer Eve Thorn, Gail’s tale starts out as noir detective story set in modern day London. Our Colombo like character Detective Fossmire (Stephen Elton) is at odds with himself having doubts about a case he’s working on and his ability to lift himself up by the bootstraps (he’s constantly sick) and move out of his mother’s, Lady Fossmire’s, aka Alice (Rhona Gold) flat.
So the stage is set, we think. But before we even have a chance to settle in and really find out what’s bothering Fossie, Gold’s Lady F. delivers a long rambling lecture about zero population to a waste-not want-not society. Hidden by dim lighting (Mia Bane Jacobs) her son snoozes off on the sidelines and three odd-looking women are peering down on the activities. “What," you might ask, “the hay are we in for?
In the meantime after her long speech, the lighting focuses on her son. He reveals to her that he is trying to solve a head scratching mystery involving indigent men strangely reported missing from the seedy back streets of London (hundreds of them at a time). Could this be an omen of what’s to come from Zero Population Growth? Funny thing though, she is willing to help him in solving the mystery and he gladly accepts the offer.
OK you say, “Here we go”. Not so fast, I say. We still have seven more characters to catch up with. Those three oddities I mentioned earlier are the Rime Sisters, triplets to be exact, Emmaline Rime (Jo Anne Glover), Ursaline Rime (Morgan Trant) and Valentine Rime (Melissa Fernandes). They speak in rhymes (get it) and in Jacobean English and when they are not speaking they are often singing nursery rhymes: Lavender’s Blue Dilly Dilly or Ring Around A Rosie. Somewhere in the subtext we even get the notion we’re delving into Alice in Wonderland land i.e. the title Alice Times Three with numerous references made to Alice and the Rabbit Hole.
The three are always seen together and when we first meet them they are sitting on a metal lattice looking bridge that connects to spiral staircases on either ends of the stage (David S. Weiner), above where most of the story takes place, looking down into the audience. Their legs are intertwined and they are looking very much like something out of another play, Macbeth and the three witches perhaps? They are wearing hooded capes (all blue their favorite color) designed by Jennifer Brawn Giddings with terrific looking wigs and makeup by Missy Bradstreet.
This leads us to another set of characters. They include those we are led believe are the birth mother and birth father of the triplets Madeline Rime (Laurie Lehmann-Gray) and Hugo Rime (Mark C. Petrich). Petrich is a professor of Jacobean drama
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who also doubles as one of the detectives on the case of the missing men, who becomes temporarily missing himself. He’s like the absent-minded professor who adores his daughters on the one hand and the confused detective on the other.
Madeline Rime makes the claim that that she conceived the girls through some satanic act and that all had stubby tails at birth that were later removed. During that period she disappeared and then reappeared again. Hugo will hear nothing of it. That’s one story of the girls’ existence. Then there’s Lady F.’s reasoning that when she was a child her stepbrother’s caused horrible acts against her and the three girls were her imaginary friends right out of Alice In Wonderland. You choose.
They are self-indulgent troublemakers who relish causing revenge and mischief all done in rhymes. They are also ‘pit bulls with dresses on’ (as described by one of the characters) and the tongue in cheek humor, odd, as it seems, that keeps you on your toes throughout the production is well appreciated. Just wondering what will come next from them is in itself entertaining.
Finally enter psychiatrist Dr. Flora Whetstone (Kristianne Kurner) a feminist who delves into the psyche of those who worship and believe in witchcraft. She later becomes the love interest to our clueless detective. She’s beautiful, sexy and smart. That said, don’t expect a neatly wrapped bundle at plays end it’s still about the kind of dodo dodo world that enamored television's Rod Serling.
Who’s to dispute Gail, though, when so many of us believe in magic or miracles (as some like to call it) especially in Judaism as when God turns Moses’ staff into a snake? We teach this to our children in religious school. And when Moses comes before Pharaoh to “Let his people go” he causes the plagues on the Egyptians.
At every Passover Seder we recite the ten plagues as ordered by God to convince Pharaoh to Free the Israelites. Frogs? Vermin? Lice? Boils? Water to Blood? Angel of Death? Magic or the will of God? Lest we forget the powers of Black or White Magic that is still practiced by many in today’s world. We wear Hamsa’s to ward off the evil eye, talk in whispers about illness, etc. There is a whole movement out there which some refer to as Kabbalah or Jewish Mysticism. The practice of black magic (or white magic) is not lost on Gail.
It is a strange play with which Moxie has chosen to kick off the season. Mysticism, black magic and zero population are an odd mix of ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they are funny and bizarre other time they get confusing and wandering as they did on opening night.
Moxie and Gail have collaborated in the past with a wonderfully entertaining and award winning production of Gail’s Devil Dog 6 in 2007. It was a new play and was recognized by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for Best New Play.
Even as the play is a little tweaked to this side of odd the cast is right on with carrying off its assignment, that of making it all ring true. As Detective Fossmire, Stephen Elton is as good as it gets looking and acting like the deer in the wilderness fact finder. Elton who is artist in residence at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach rarely acts. His stunning direction of the Tony Award winning Rabbit Hole there drew critical raves. My one complaint is the accent. Set In London Elton’s British accent didn’t hold up through the evening.
Rhona Gold’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen from her over the years. Spot on in manner, posture, looks and credibility, she is a hoot, never missing a beat. Bravo! It is also a pleasure to see Kristianne Kurner, founding mother of New Village Arts, on another stage giving yet another great performance as the tough doctor playing against Elton. She’s one hell of a convincing and strong presence on any stage. Another shout out is needed.
Not mentioning Jo Anne Glover, Morgan Trant and Melissa Fernandes as the three incorrigibles would be a massive oversight on my part and they may come after me. They make the show for better or worse walking, talking, singing in harmony and chuckling all the way to the back alleys of London.
Drink Me or TSCOAx3 continues through Sept. 27th in the Studio Forum directly behind the Mandell Weiss Forum at the La Jolla Playhouse. It’s worth a try to see how this brave little theatre ‘who could’ is indeed doing. For more information see www.moxietheatre.com
See you at the theatre.