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Family's 'Alice': Amusingly Mild

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Two out of two middle-schoolers agree: "Alice" isn't half bad.

Okay, not a Gallup Poll exactly. But it is the consensus of two students who accompanied a reviewer to this new play, based on a children's book by Whoopi Goldberg, that is christening the Kennedy Center's warmly appointed, 324-seat Family Theater.

Although neither girl was blown away by the work, both of them, one 11 and the other 13, appreciated its anarchic spirit. ("An interesting mix of reality and fantasy," the 11-year-old concluded.) The gently engaging "Alice," in its world premiere, is not programmed to overwhelm a kid's senses. It achieves its modest aim of imparting, with entertaining digressions, a lesson about money and the troubles an obsessive pursuit of it can engender.

Kim Hines's hour-long adaptation, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, features a cast of six resourceful actors, most of whom assume multiple roles in the story of Alice (Audra Alise Polk), who dreams herself into the finals of a sweepstakes, which takes her to some intimidating neighborhoods of the nearby Big City.

We can expect, of course, that Alice is going to get in over that headstrong head of hers. Lectured by her imaginary rabbit-friend, Sal (James Konicek), that "money isn't everything," the obstinate Alice brushes him off. "It is to me," she declares. With nods to "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland," the play ushers Sal, Alice and their geeky pal Robin (Nehal Joshi) through encounters with all manner of people who want to get their hands on Alice's winning ticket.

Finney's staging makes good use of James Kronzer's colorful set pieces, which are simply the letters of Alice's name, rendered as freestanding blocks six feet tall. The letters are turned this way and that, to become, among other things, a child's bed, a carnival barker's gaming table and a dowager's furniture.

The production is unhinged just enough to appeal to some kids' love of the ridiculous. A fortuneteller's crystal ball is, for no reason other than rampant silliness, called Myrtle. And the evening's centerpiece is a hip-hop number by a pair of panhandlers. Performed with elan by Joshi and Scott Kerns, the song got an overstimulated 4-year-old on the lap of a mother next to me doing her own impression of Eminem.

Polk invests Alice with the right mix of assertiveness and mischievousness. The gifted Kerns contributes amusing turns as various street types with funny accents, and Erika Rose spices up the role of a vendor of bizarre cuisine like liver and onions on a stick.

You do wonder at times, with the bunny-character and all, at what age group "Alice" is directed. On Friday night, the Family Theater seats were occupied mostly by parents and their children in the first-to-third-grade range, and many of the jokes were going over the littler ones' heads. (At times, there was as much action on the pathway to the theater's sparkling new bathrooms as on the stage.)

After the show, the two girls in my survey said they thought the ideal crowd for "Alice" would be a sea of sixth-graders. They laughed with pitiless derision, though, when I asked whether a 14-year-old boy of their acquaintance would find the play entertaining. Like what planet, they wanted to know, was this adult from?

Alice, by Kim Hines, adapted from a book by Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney. Costumes, Timm Burrow; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Tony Angelini; composer, Mike Greenhill. With Jason Lott. Approximately one hour. Through Jan. 2 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org .

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