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Turning the Tables on Caustic Critics

Natural Theatricals’ world premiere studies roots of cynical power.

Natural Theatricals’ new production “Alice in Underwear” centers around a caustic, curmudgeonly theatre critic who is put through the wringer during a journey of self-discovery that may ultimately reveals the sources of her cynicism.

The Alexandria theatre company isn’t shy about the fact that this premise challenges its primary authority figures, billing the piece as “the show critics have to hate…an actor’s dream, a critic’s nightmare.”

Brian Alprin, production director for Natural Theatricals, sees the play as a commentary on power, with a specific focus on the power wielded by a professional critic.

As is the tradition for the 3-season-old company, the play has ancient influences. “We specialize in plays that are inspired by the ancient Greek tradition,” said Alprin, who said that despite the satirical title, “Alice” isn’t a spoof of the classic children’s story “Alice in Wonderland” but is influenced by it.

“Alice in Underwear” debuts on Thursday, July 13 at 8 p.m., in the indoor amphitheatre of the George Washington Masonic National

Memorial on 101 Callahan Drive. The show is scheduled to be performed on Thursday, Friday and Monday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. through July 30. Visit www.naturaltheatricals.com for more information.

PAULA ALPRIN, the artistic director for Natural Theatricals, is the writer and star of “Alice in Underwear.” Her previous works included the well-received “The Crawl Space Waltz,” which was performed at the National Theatre in D.C. and at the Old Town Theatre in Alexandria.

In “Alice,” a harsh, jaded newspaper theater critic is willing to trash anything she sees, but jumps at the chance to interview the hottest — and most mysteriously reclusive — producer in Manhattan. When she shows up for the appointment, she’s instead greeted by a series of reps for the producer; slowly, the interviewer becomes the interviewee, and a journey of self-revelation begins.

July 13 marks the world premiere of “Alice in Underwear.” The fact that the play has never been staged before is what attracted director David Binet to the project.

“Essentially, they hired me because I like new plays and I like new works. They liked my enthusiasm for that,” he said.

Binet has been in the area for four years, with three of those years dedicated to earning a Master’s in director from Catholic University. In the last year, he’s been doing assistant director duties at Ford’s Theatre and the Roundhouse in Bethesda.

When doing Shakespeare to David Mamet, “you’re always going to have people who refer back to those previous productions,” he said. “The intrigue of a new play is that it’s never been done before. You don’t have something that people can compare it to.”

With the playwright also being the show’s lead actor, Binet said all of the analysis of the script came to an end before rehearsals, when Alprin morphed into her acting role. But before that, there were many obstacles in staging the work.

“The way that the script was presented to me, it was given to me as the play and my job was how to stage it. How to manifest it physically,” Binet said. “The way that she wrote it was somewhat nebulous. There wasn’t specific movements and scenes — it was just page one to page 59. Trying to break it up into scenes that progressed throughout the play, to try to find those beats was the biggest challenge.”

FROM A performance perspective, there were other challenge — like making the lead role of critic Alison Alice into the acerbic character she was written to be.

“Paula is a very caring, Earth-mother type person. To get her to be a Murphy Brown was kind of tough. She always thought she was being too mean; I’d have to tell her she wasn’t being mean enough,” he said.

The solution was to amplify the performances of the other players in order to draw contrast. The other four actors who interact with Alice “needed to be much more goofy, animated and in control, so there’s a nice duality between them,” said Binet.

“You have this one character that’s crotchety, and these other characters kind of bouncing around — sort of like the Animaniacs.”