Some parts of Tiny Alice are laughably literal. At the beginning, for instance, a Catholic cardinal in full black-and-red regalia tweets affectionately at some caged birds — cardinals, naturally. Other words and images seem to offer easy metaphoric puzzles, as when Julian, the lay brother who will emerge as the play's central character, is referred to as a "drab fledgling"; already attuned to the bird theme, we perk up. Then there's a chess match between two characters, reminiscent of the Knight's chess game against Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. But minute by minute, all the bits and pieces we're trying to fit together fall apart in our hands. Ultimately, Edward Albee's play is impenetrable, incomprehensible. Fortunately, this doesn't matter, because it's also brilliant, evocative, funny and so theatrical that my attention didn't waver for a single moment over the course of the evening — and I doubt anyone else's did, either.
The action begins when a man called Lawyer tells Cardinal that his boundlessly rich female employer is offering the church billions of dollars, and someone must go to her castle and finalize the details. Julian is chosen for the task. At the castle, he meets Butler, who has a puzzling relationship with Lawyer — sometimes angry, sometimes loving ("Darling," "Sweetheart," they intone with a mixture of indifference and contempt). A major feature of this palatial home is a small model of the place set on a table. There's something magical about this model; at one point, someone suggests that tiny versions of the characters speak and move within it. It may even contain a tinier model of itself, and that model another, and so on to infinity. When a room in this toy house begins to flicker, the same room in the actual castle bursts into flame. This strange world — which combines the hallucinatory red and black of a vampire film with a whimsy reminiscent of Lewis Carroll — is presided over by the not-particularly-tiny Alice, a woman of baffling contradictions. With Julian, who may be humble and pure of heart but is as vulnerable to sexual desire as anyone, she's haughty, self-assured and seductive. With Lawyer, clearly a onetime lover, she's off-balance and afraid.
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through October 12, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
Julian's faith is central to his being. He once lost six years of his life to a lunatic asylum, driven there by the contrast between his understanding of God and the way the idea of God is misused in ordinary life. He will be destroyed by Lawyer, Cardinal, Butler and Alice; they have been plotting his death for a long time and will go on to destroy others. We can't know whether Albee intended these as real or supernatural figures, but we do know they are evil, possibly satanic. Perhaps they embody the corruption of the Catholic Church on earth, or perhaps the ways in which the search for purity and for God twists human beings. "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you," said Nietzsche. "Every monster was a man first, Julian," Alice reminds her prey. "Every dictator was a colonel who vowed to retire once the revolution was done." The scariest possibility is that these characters do truly represent God, or the workings of His will — Alice seems to stand in for Him as surely as the miniature castle mirrors her life-sized one. Which means it's a pretty nasty God we're dealing with, a deity with a truly vicious sense of humor.
Director Ed Baierlein has mounted one of the strongest productions I've seen in a long time, lucid and sure-footed, with every role perfectly cast. David Fenerty is the arrogant, sly-eyed Cardinal, Stephen R. Kramer a bluff, bullying Lawyer. Leroy Leonard's Butler is poised precisely between genial Jeeves-style dignity and sour-spirited puckishness, and Gina Wencel makes for a fascinating and disconcertingly warm and sensual Alice. Central to the production's success is Terry Burnsed's portrayal of Julian. Burnsed immerses himself in the role so completely, and plays it with such passion and integrity, that you wonder how he can possibly endure repeating it time after time on the Germinal stage. Or perhaps in the tiny model castle.