Actor in Wonderland by Central Works
There’s someone named “Duchess” (Kimberly Ridgeway), who works for the Red Queen? It’s possible something very bad is going on here. Joseph just wants to go home; but that’s not so easy when you’re down the rabbit hole, and through the looking glass in Central Works production of Wonderland by Gary Graves. Photo:  J. Norrena
by Gary Graves. Photo:  J. Norrena

Have you noticed that dystopian and dehumanizing themes abound these days in theater, film and television? Our country’s dark political mood has definitely infected the entertainment industry. Mass media, especially theater, should provoke thought, and that’s a good thing, but these days it would be enjoyable to have a bit of comedy now and then to go along with the prevalent somber offerings.

Gary Graves, author of the clever world-premiere play, Wonderland, has injected a bit of comedy into this otherwise bizarre tale of an unimportant bank teller named Joseph Kaye (John Patrick Moore) who is arrested and taken to what resembles the White House. There he meets someone named “A” (Martha Brigham), an intern who has been promoted quickly because of all the departures. She insists that he wait in a room, without any explanation.

Joseph is confused about why he has been brought to the White House, but neither “A,” nor Rabbit (Clive Worsley), who is a chief of staff type, nor Duchess (Kimberly Ridgeway), a high-powered staffer, will respond to him. And they threaten him with death if he attempts to leave.

As Joseph’s anxiety increases, so does the audience’s discomfort and confoundment. He tells the White House staffers that perhaps they have mistaken him for Joseph K, instead of Joseph Kaye. Perhaps Joseph, and certainly author Gary Graves, is familiar with Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which a man named Josef K is arrested and tried without any specific charges being brought. And indeed there may be confusion about Joseph’s arrest, since Duchess tells Joseph that “K” is short for the knave of hearts.

Over the course of the 80-minute intermission-less drama, references are made to other characters from Alice in Wonderland, such as the Red Queen, the Red King and the Mad Hatter. But it isn’t until the dénouement of the drama that the rationale of the White House characters’ behavior is revealed and with it, the thrust of the play.

Wonderland has some intriguing ideas and pointed comments about the U.S.’s current political situation. Jan Zvaifler’s direction works well, and the four actors are excellent in their roles. However, the structure of Wonderland is such that most of the 80 minutes are spent in the early confusion and tension phase of the play with too little time left for analysis, action and climax. That may be purposeful on the writer’s part, but it leaves audience members wondering for too long about Wonderland’s, direction, viewpoint, and cohesion.

Central Works performs in a 50-person theater, with no sets and little room for props, yet it is a long-standing professional company committed to present only new works inspired by social issues, classic texts and history. To date, it has produced 62 brand new productions. That is a remarkable achievement.

Wonderland is playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at the Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant Ave., through March 17. Advance tickets, priced between $22 and $38, are available online, with a sliding scale of $38-$15 at the door. Thursdays are always pay-what-you-can at the door. For information, extended dates and tickets, call 510-558-1381 or visit Central Works online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...