Central Works New Play Theater attempts effective disorientation with ‘Wonderland’

Two men stand a few feet away from each other and stare each other in the eyes with serious expressions.

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Alice arrives in Wonderland … except, this time it’s not Alice, it’s middle-aged bank teller Joseph Kaye. Oh, and instead of Wonderland, it’s the White House. This is the premise of the play “Wonderland,” now playing at Central Works, which brings elements of Lewis Carroll’s famous tale along with a tone inspired by Franz Kafka, to a modern day Washington, D.C. The result is a disorienting and chaotic 80-minute narrative, which at times excels in bridging its various elements and at other times falls flat.

“Wonderland,” written by Gary Graves, follows Joseph Kaye (John Patrick Moore), a DC-based bank teller who is captured and brought to the White House — a setting that is alluded to heavily but never actually verbally mentioned — for a mysterious, menacing scheme that he is forced to play a part in. Very little is known to Joseph, or the audience, except that it somehow involves the president — who is similarly never named but bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump. Chaos and confusion ensue as Joseph must figure out why he is suddenly in the White House and what exactly his role in the scheme is. Central Works’ “Wonderland,” directed by Jan Zvaifler, premiered at the Central Works Theater in Berkeley City Club on Feb. 16 and will run through March 17.

Of course, the play relies heavily on references to “Alice in Wonderland.” All of the characters besides Joseph are known only by code names, including “Rabbit” and “Duchess.” And other characters not seen on stage but verbally referenced include a critic of the president, “Mad Hatter” or the president himself, “the Red King.” Moreover, characters make comments such as referring to the process of interning at the White House as going “down the rabbit hole.” Yet, despite all of these references, the connection to “Alice in Wonderland” seems almost arbitrary. The narrative plays on the idea of life seeming like a dream or fantasy, but the link is too loose. This would have been more effective had the cast and crew focused solely on relating reality to dreams, rather than trying to attach it to a well-known story.

In a very “in medias res” opening to the play, Joseph is introduced as being extremely disoriented. The other characters avoid explaining anything about his situation to him right away, lengthening the confusion for Joseph — and the audience. The play wanted to be both fast-paced and keep the audience’s knowledge limited for an extended amount of time. It results in a strange pacing that is indeed disorienting — but not in a deliberate or successful fashion.

Further, the play is advertised as being “Kafka-esque,” which, in theory, should be very effective. The inspirations from Kafka are clear — namely, “Wonderland” leans into absurdity as a genre. This is especially evident in the final scenes of the play, after the plot twist has been revealed. Yet, “Wonderland” is not quite absurdist enough; instead, absurdist elements poke through here and there, but are not consistently present. The absurdity gets lost in the “Alice in Wonderland” references, which instead of complementing the absurdity actually counteract it. By making its “Alice in Wonderland” allusions mere references — code names for characters and jokes about the “rabbit hole” — the play stays grounded in reality instead of leaning into more of a fantasy world.

“Wonderland,” however, is not without its merits. There are moments where the elements at play pay off and result in its originally intended humor. Many of these instances are due to the talented cast, who make the most of the characters given to them. The tension between Rabbit (Clive Worsley) and both Duchess (Kimberly Ridgeway) and A (Martha Brigham), characters who are all meant to be on the same “side,” effectively creates an elusive atmosphere to the plot that is building up to its big reveal. And John Patrick Moore, as the lead Joseph, is triumphant in his performance as the confused and neurotic protagonist.

Essentially, “Wonderland” is made up of many parts that weren’t quite taken far enough. Instead of melding, they sometimes clash and the ultimate result is a disorientation of unintended effect. The final plot twist is indeed surprising, as the narrative succeeds in keeping it out of audience expectations. It almost makes the disorientation and confusion fuse at the last moment — but a bit too late to tip “Wonderland” into a territory of clever, conscious entertainment rather than theatrical confusion.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].