Uptight supervisors, uniforms from hell, and incident reports for anyone whose toe strays over the line: Sound like your job? Now imagine that your supervisor spies on you from behind plastic trees, your uniform is heavy on fiberglass and padded four-fingered gloves, or that you've been written up for having your head fall off in front of guests, and you've got Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen's one-man show about his four-year stint at Disneyland as a "Casual Season Pageant Helper" -- a Pluto in furs.
Allen, the artistic director of the Black Box Theatre Company, first presented his piece in a shorter form as Character in the 1996 San Francisco Fringe Festival, where it won Best of Fringe (which he did again in 2000 with Chain Reactions). The expanded version, Working for the Mouse, conveys a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes detail, from the near-military requirements of performers' grooming to the drug- and boredom-fueled misadventures of people who have had it up to their pointy ears with eight-year-olds kicking them in the costumed crotch to see what happens. (Ideally, nothing does; Official Rule Number Three quite sternly admonishes employees: No Retaliation Allowed).
While working as Pluto opened Allen's eyes to the seamed underbelly of the Mouse House, even after being downsized he never entirely lost his sense of the magic about the so-called Happiest Place on Earth. He remains a lapsed believer, and his show manages to simultaneously convey the wide-eyed wonder of a seventeen-year-old realizing his dream with the disillusionment of discovering that your dream is, after all, a job like any other.
Mouse is more of a manic monologue than a play in the traditional sense, although there are several characters, all played clearly and distinctly by Allen. While it's not elaborately staged (Allen first appears in just a T-shirt, shorts, and kneepads), it's hardly static either; the action only flags when he goes offstage to rehydrate. Allen shows off his great vocal chops when he re-creates, in effortless fast-forward, the "face auditions" of a half-dozen characters such as Peter Pan, Alice, and the Mad Hatter, who do not wear giant heads and actually get to speak to the public. The night I went to LaVal's, Allen faced the added challenge of incorporating game two of the World Series into his performance. He managed it gracefully, incorporating the cheers from upstairs as applause for something that was happening to one of his characters. He even threw in a reference to rally monkeys.
Props to Impact Theatre as well for delivering a lot of, well, impact for little money. Even before the lights go down, they've created a mood of constriction in keeping with the experience of being trapped, mute, inside a massive furry yellow dog. In the hall on the way to the ticket podium is an easily overlooked "staff bulletin board" covered with hilarious -- and doubtless authentic -- paper detritus. It looks as if Allen carefully saved everything, from the rules of conduct to detailed instructions on getting the "Disney Look" (women, if they wear lipstick, must choose a natural color ... men's hair can't brush their collar ... shaved heads are definitely not the Disney Way), and God help you if you gain weight such that your costume doesn't fit right. Meanwhile the show's program notes detail graphic designer Cheshire Dave's challenge in trying to put together a poster without bringing down the wrath of Disney's lawyers.
But the show belongs to Allen and about seven vivid characters. The most fleshed-out of the bunch is Mouse House veteran Gary, a very small man who has found his niche as Donald Duck. Gary has no illusions about his job, alternatively referring to Disneyland as "Mouschwitz" and "Geppetto's Ghetto." He arms Allen with the three most important rules to guarantee performer survival: Don't let them get in back of you, never stand in direct sunlight, and watch your ass. While the rules might seem silly at first, they make perfect sense over time, and are well-integrated with the unfolding story as Allen faces his first crush of kids ("There's a lot of them, and it's like they've never seen a six-foot yellow dog before!"); drags a puking, heat-stricken White Rabbit away from a clueless park visitor who wants to know if it's hot in that suit; and gets busted by his ever-vigilant supervisor Jimmy ("There's a right way, and a wrong way, and then there's the Disney way") for embellishing classic stories ("The third little pig's house was made with aluminum siding; he was an accountant").
Amusing in its awfulness, and familiar to anyone who ever threw a party hoping one special person would turn up, is Allen's tale of hosting a "little luau" for his comrades that took on a Caligula-esque dimension. Hundreds of people show up -- most of them strangers, or people Allen only knew as the characters they played -- and set about trashing the place. "Pinocchio was doing lines with Dumbo in the bathroom," he explains, and goes on to admit that he couldn't even hide in his room because when he got there, the Seven Dwarves were having an orgy with the Three Little Pigs. Much of Allen's time at Disneyland seems to have been marked by this out-of-control quality, as he blithely followed Peter Pan into trouble, unknowingly got dosed on the job, and found himself upside down in a hedge waiting for the coast to clear before he extricated himself and his massive fiberglass head. Yet, while sometimes cynical and wry, Mouse also is quite touching in places. As a boy seeing Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan, Trevor Allen wanted some pixie dust of his own, and found it as a man in an oversized dog suit. How can you not enjoy a show that begins with a line like "I got my head off the shelf ... my body off the rack ... and picked up my paws"?
Working for the Mouse once again highlights the exciting growth of Impact Theatre, which is taking interesting risks, and not letting its mostly financial limitations constrain its imagination. From the fantastic opening salvo of Henry IV: The Impact Remix, to the upcoming Scab and season closer Queer Theory (a real coup for Impact, a world premiere from writer and director John Fisher), this season has been marked by diversity and fearlessness. And if you've ever wondered what it's like to "grow up and play at Disneyland all day" -- or, for that matter, if you've ever had a job that looked like a dream from the outside and a fevered hallucination from the inside -- you'll want to see Working for the Mouse. From the slightly macabre (seeing the heads of the Seven Dwarves on posts in the Head Room) to the poignant (meeting a terminally ill child and signing his hat with a paw print), Allen shares his Disneyland experience with warmth, style, and tremendous humor.
Culture Spy - April 20, 9:52 AM
Culture Spy - April 13, 12:18 PM