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Go Ask an Abstract 'Alice' Between Hallucinations


Why not begin a stage version of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" saga with abstract equations? Carroll was a mathematician, after all. With his penchant for puns and paradoxes, his books require intellectually mature readers.

No wonder Robert A. Prior and the Fabulous Monsters aimed their twisted, campy and elaborately staged "Project: Alice" squarely at an adult audience, transforming Highways' performance space into a mental playground for mental cases. They postulate Alice's adventures as the hallucinations induced by Carroll's experimentation with opium, in which the full-grown author (a very funny Bennett Schneider) assumes the role of his prepubescent heroine.

By skirting (literally) the compromised cuteness of more familiar--and familial--versions, the troupe taps a wellspring of quirkiness in the original text. It's more than sufficient to fuel their witty parallels to '60s psychedelia--complete with black lights and a rendition of the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"--though some of their anachronisms (getting back to the "Woodstock" garden or a burst of surf music) prove overreaching. If the Monsters have a weakness, it's a tendency to undercut their more profound psychological probing with a retreat into whimsicality. As a result, the more disturbing aspects of this darker Wonderland never fully surface.

Assuming multiple roles, the Monsters employ elements of puppetry, dance and song, as well as more traditional stagecraft in their striking visual characterizations.

Perhaps the best is Bill Callaway's frenetically phonetic Mad Hatter, equally adept at delivering his lines forward or backward. The gaunt, white-faced Prior supplies some of the most bizarre portraits--the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen's Executioner. Ezra Buzzington-Harris is a suitably uptight White Rabbit, and Indira Stefanianna makes the Mock Turtle's song memorable.

Engaging and creative as this adaptation is, the territory isn't uncharted. Santa Barbara's Lit Moon Theatre Company staged an "Alice" with remarkably similar techniques, though it envisioned the story as a little girl's fall from innocence rather than a drug-induced romp. Which only goes to show how many lively rabbits still wait in Carroll's fertile mad hat.



"Project: Alice," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Sundays, 8:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 28. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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