Wild Life Theatre Company

at the Preston Bradley Community Center

Wild Life Theatre is a company to watch. For their debut production they’ve chosen Ping Chong’s Noiresque–The Fallen Angel, a tremendously difficult piece that Wild Life has treated intelligently if unevenly. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Noiresque seems to have no center; instead it’s a swirling mass of irrational situations and hallucinatory characters. Its protagonist, appropriately named Alice, is a naive young traveler trapped in a curious land–Terminal City–and desperate to find her way home. But in Chong’s work, Alice’s quest is tangential. The focus instead is on piecing together the landscape of Terminal City, a horribly cruel place where fortunes and lives are traded on rolls of dice.

Terminal City is of course a distorted reflection of our own society, where “playing the game” is the key to success, without regard to how the rules can abuse and even destroy people. It’s a world where spontaneous thought has been replaced by advertising slogans (“Oh my pause that refreshes!” one character says as part of a litany of laments). And it is a world where love is forever distant. The citizens of Terminal City often creep along with their ears pressed to the ground, for under the city their loved ones are trapped in subway cars that cannot be stopped.

To make a cogent evening out of such inventive and apparently impulsively written material a director needs clear vision and sure footing. And in that regard Lisa M.R. Formosa and her cast are quite successful, creating distinct, distilled characters who hold fast to the internal illogic of the piece. Herr Hasenphefer (Dean Leitzen) is a harried, obsequious little rabbit dressed in cartoonish formal attire. He seems to live only to please others, lying prostrate, for instance, before an unseen force to which he refers as “Your largeness.” Madame L’Argent (Andrea Tashiro), former ruler of Terminal City, is a fleshy, slowly decaying but warlike monarch stuffed into a two-piece office suit; the maniacal fury she constantly represses appears in the chess set she wears as a chapeau. Nadine Nadine (Caroline O’Malley) is a bored harlot in a short, slinky dress and spiked heels, sporting an impossibly long cigarette holder.

All of the characters are grotesque exaggerations, horrifying cartoons come to life. Each is adorned with a perfectly ugly mask created by John Russell Apici. These masks not only provide the characters with distorted, surreal features–Madame L’Argent’s eyelashes, for example, are about six inches long–but give them a sensuality at once alluring and repellent.

Into this fetid world an angel (Apici) has fallen, and everyone wants to trap him. Charmingly innocent and simple, he wears no fancy costume, only a snug pair of shorts and mechanical wings; and he drinks Ovaltine. Apici seems to float through the show, staring in curious wonder at the things around him: in one section, he apes Nadine Nadine’s suggestive gestures, oblivious of their sexual connotations.

Curiously, the one character in this production who should have been paid greater attention is Alice (Laurie Behrman). She wanders through the show with no clear impulse driving her from one scene to the next. With no clarity to her character, the audience can feel as if it too is being led astray. Much of this seems to be the fault of the script: Alice continually befriends everyone she meets, dismissing her own needs in order to ask characters questions about themselves. Though at times Behrman seems hesitant and unsure of herself, she does an admirable job overall with so sketchy a character, giving Alice naivete without sacrificing her savvy. And she makes Alice’s sudden swings in logic delightful. After crying “I’m lost,” she proudly announces, “I’ll be on all the milk cartons”; but then she starts to worry: “I hope it’s a good likeness.”

Despite the performers’ hard work and skill, Noiresque never quite jells. The pieces are often fascinating, but Chong’s text doesn’t ever surrender its essential raison d’etre. The final scene, in which the identity of the ruler of Terminal City is revealed, is disappointingly anticlimactic. Perhaps I expected certainties from a piece fundamentally about uncertainty–clearly this work wants to pose questions rather than present conclusions. But for me, the irrational, arduous journey I agreed to take in watching this piece was not satisfying. I wanted some payoff at the end of the line.

This production is also hampered by scenic and lighting designs that are not inventive or flexible. Though the characters supposedly travel wildly from one location to another, the stage remains the same, bathed for the most part in a general wash of light and decorated with cold, gray abstractions of city buildings. Because the set is so large, the only available playing area is downstage center, which makes most of the scenes seem interchangeable–there is no special area designated for capturing particular moments. The actors too often seem stuck in one place, just in front of the audience, making it difficult to “believe” in the drama. A few simple cross-fades and a more flexible set would have gone far toward making this production more effective.