Uncomfortably numb

It’s a harebrained idea to describe the debut play of the Rose Theatre’s second season, Alice and the MKULTRA Experiment, as “an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with LSD” in conversation. Such oversimplification on my part has only yielded the following vexing response: “So … basically, it’s just Alice in Wonderland, then?”

Eat me. Despite the fact that LSD was first synthesized a good seven decades after Lewis Carroll’s iconic and bizarre children’s book was published in 1865, evidently Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles so effectively married Wonderland to psychedelic experience that even I occasionally speculate  that Albert Hofmann rode back in time on Bicycle Day to dose the youngster who inspired the character Alice. Then Carroll — literary pirate and possible pedophile? — documented her initial trip plus a later flashback which he called Through the Looking-Glass. Now there’s a play! But it is not this one, so enough nonsense.

Alice and the MKULTRA Experiment is more accurately described thusly: Imagine you went to see The Bourne Identity in an alternate universe, where Doug Liman — who directed Identity as well as contemporary American masterpiece Mr. & Mrs. Smith — was actually an avant-garde theater director. Suppose the whole joint went down inside a room of wall-to-wall black in Mad Men-era San Fran, and the amnesiac-assassin protagonist was not 30-something cutie Bourne, but college-aged cutie Britney (Monique Sleeper). Like Bourne, the personality of this forgetful robo-killer was deconstructed and reprogrammed by a clandestine government-affiliated program; in Britney’s case, though, rape, high doses of LSD, and an encouraged identification with Carroll’s Alice help accomplish a memory wipe she didn’t volunteer for. The scientists (Deborah Basham-Burns and Chris Fleming) responsible for Brit-brit’s transformation don’t bother to train her up with mad spy-type skills — who needs ’em to ensnare a target when you’re packing snatch in your girly mini-dress and being specially groomed for “Operation Midnight Climax”?

That’s right: Britney is coerced into becoming a murdering whore in knee socks. Like the visual or not, MKULTRA playwright Chris Manley found his way of tapping into the resonant notion of Alice-as-cautionary-tale: A few naïve choices on a jocular night out, ladies, and there’s no going home again. When the play begins, Britney and her best friend, Chelsea (Ashley Pulido), are just a few libations and a blackout away from kidnapping. Handled with any less care by directors Manley and Jessie Rose, this could read like victim-blaming — i.e. “those chicks were asking for trouble.”

“Trouble” is too timid a word for the ego death and/or schizophrenia government scientists Dr. Mueller and Dr. Sid aspire to achieve in their unwilling subjects. Indeed, Britney’s consciousness is essentially torn from her physical person. During her recurring acid-induced hallucinations, which she calls “Wonderland” — conjured at the Rose by colorful, compelling stage-wide projections of cartoons and melting celluloid-like images — Britney meets with friends such as Rabbit (Jon Smith — twitchy, scary, fabulous) and carelessly arches herself this way and that like a sunning seal, smiling and laughing. Meanwhile, back in the “real world,” her vacant fembot body endures torture and learns to seduce and destroy on command to the great delight of Dr. Mueller, who is — though played with a concealing amount of control by Basham-Burns — a seriously deranged old fetishistic German pervert if I ever saw one.

Alice and the MKULTRA Experiment’s premise is unlikely to win an originality contest or move a generation to reinterpret the text from which it draws inspiration, and the play’s inherent dependency on LSD  confers upon it an intrinsically vintage remoteness. Still, the Rose’s production is demonstrative of a theater company that is clearly in it — developing new work, encouraging daring performances, and utilizing progressive, visually stimulating multimedia elements. Alice is grooviest when these components work in harmony to probe both the emancipating and binding possibilities of transcendental consciousness. •

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