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Tiny Alice

[The following review appeared in the Denver Post on September 25th.]

Like all great playwrights, Edward Albee reinvents himself at every turn, often to the consternation of critics and audiences, who seek refuge in the familiar. With the 1964 debut of Tiny Alice Albee declared his disregard for such limitations, giving us what continues to be one of his most controversial works, the searing elements of which are laid bare in Germinal Stage Denver's current effort.

While the multiple levels of the play make it difficult to categorize, Albee has always insisted that its meaning is transparent.

(Left to right) Terry Burnsed as Julian and Leroy Leonard as Butler
(L to R) Terry Burnsed as Julian
and Leroy Leonard as Butler
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
Julian (Terry Burnsed), a lay brother, is asked by his Cardinal (David Fenerty) to act as an intermediary between the Church and a wealthy benefactress, Miss Alice (Gina Wencel), whose Lawyer (Stephen R. Kramer) has offered a grant of $1 billion a year for 20 years, with certain conditions attached.

As we watch Miss Alice, the Lawyer, the Cardinal, and the Butler (Leroy Leonard) plot the seduction of Julian, the allegorical dynamics among religious and financial heavyweights, the working class, and the lures of materialism are impossible to ignore.

But Albee doesn't stop there, layering the story with a hefty portion of satirical commentary interwoven with an array of weighty questions, including the nature of reality, humankind's creation of an anthropomorphic G-d, and the parallels between spiritual and sexual ecstasy.

Director Ed Baierlein explicates Albee's complex tapestry with a three-level set that parallels the locations and lighting of the scripted dollhouse replica of Miss Alice's castle (perched stage left), the combination constantly reminding us of the holographic nature of the script and the quantum reality that it reflects.

Stylistically, Baierlein goes with a comedy of manners, a la Noel Coward, allowing his actors to move fluently between their multiple symbolic facets. In a seamlessly tiered performance Burnsed's Julian catches the light one moment as a humble spiritual seeker, then as a drunken everyman awash in desire, and finally as a Christ figure, abandoned by humanity. We do wish, though, that some of Albee's dense, eloquent monologues were given greater clarity.

Kramer and Fenerty kick off the show with a spirited and scathing debate, as Lawyer and Cardinal excoriate each other over their shared cynicism and hypocrisy—Kramer a sleazy shark; Fenerty a cold-blooded reptile. Leonard's insinuating Butler adds fuel to Albee's skewering of the working classes and withering analysis of Homo economus.

Gina Wencel as Miss Alice and Stephen R. Kramer as Lawyer
Gina Wencel as Miss Alice
and Stephen R. Kramer as Lawyer
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
Albee's wild card is Alice, and Wencel moves deftly from eccentric philanthropist to insatiable lover to calculating queen—a larger than life Babylon (Rome/U.S.A.) to Julian's Christ: "I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus." (Rev. 17:6)

That Albee can synthesize all this into a compelling and recently trimmed three act is impressive. That its argument has become clearer—as the world "slouches towards Bethlehem" (Yeats)—in the 44 years since it was written, is testament to his vision: "Tiny Alice" is a mirage; what you seek is not about material pleasure and consumption.

Germinal Stage Denver's Tiny Alice runs through October 12th. 303-455-7108.

Bob Bows

 

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