Look Away, Disneyland

When you’re a little kid at Disneyland, you may understand on some level that the Donald Duck waddling around shaking hands isn’t actually the cartoon character magically come to life but some oversize, mute representation of him. But it takes a bit of personal growth to go from knowing deep down it’s a guy or gal in a costume and actually thinking what it must be like to wear that thing on a sweltering Southern California summer day.

Trevor Allen in Working for the Mouse. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Playwright-performer Trevor Allen found out when he went from rapt Disney fan gawking at Peter Pan at Disneyland to becoming one of those theme-park characters. Actually, as he explains in his solo show Working for the Mouse at Impact Theatre, as a teenager he became several such characters in close succession as he tried to rise up the Fantasyland ladder to the part he really wanted, or at least one with a more comfortable costume.

An old coworker of mine from Theatre Bay Area (whose wife, Karen McKevitt, was in fact my boss and predecessor at the magazine I now edit), Allen has been busy as a playwright lately. After self-producing his Frankenstein play The Creature in 2009, he debuted his new play Lolita Roadtrip at San Jose Stage this year and is working on a commission for San Jose Rep. Working for the Mouse is a revival of a show he premiered at Impact way back in 2002 (originally directed by Kent Nicholson) and that Allen is adapting into a book.

His autobiographical account of working at Disneyland at 17 as a costumed character—or in Disneyspeak, a “casual seasonal pageant helper”—Mouse would indeed make a great book, and it makes for a pretty entertaining solo show as well. Allen starts out playing Pluto on Disneyland Hotel breakfast shifts—the crappiest of crappy gigs—and dreaming of someday scoring his dream job playing Peter Pan, which had been his goal ever since he first realized that the Peter he idolized at the theme park as a kid was an actor whose job was “to be a boy who would never grow up and play all day at Disneyland,” he says. “I had found my career goal.”

But his starry-eyed enthusiasm quickly runs afoul of the draconian rules, sweltering costumes, cockpunching kids, strict character hierarchy, and surreptitious debauchery of the Magic Kingdom. “Welcome to Mauschwitz,” his cynical park mentor tells him. It’s an awfully entertaining, well-written yarn packed with priceless anecdotes. The first time he got to work in the park itself inside the Pluto suit (the first of several characters he cycles through in the course of the show), he says, “I finally calmed down enough to stop smiling for the pictures.”

The Impact revival staging, a coproduction with his own Black Box Theatre, is a very simple, bare-bones affair. The black-box pizza parlor basement space is unadorned except for a bench and a “Disneyland employees only” sign on the door. Cliff Caruthers’s sound design brackets the scenes with various cover versions of Disney songs, and Jax Steager’s lighting shifts subtly to punctuate scenes like our hero’s drug trip with the girl he has a crush on, who plays Alice in Wonderland (with “White Rabbit” playing, naturally).

Allen and director Nancy Carlin keep the pace lively—sometimes too lively. At least as seen on opening night, Allen jumps into the performance with so much nervous energy that he runs the risk of overselling the material, reacting to his own lines before the audience has had a chance to do the same. He often paces around the stage in an exaggerated stride that seems appropriate enough for a Disney character but feels like a weird thing for him to be doing when he’s not necessarily illustrating a costumed persona.

Allen’s character voices are terrific, from the cigar-chomping growl of Gary, the midget lifer in the Donald Duck costume, to the squeaky nagging of Jimmy, the omnipresent supervisor who jumps out of bushes to catch anyone violating park protocol. This facility with voices isn’t just helpful in making the show as entertaining as possible; it’s also a plot point when he desperately auditions for an unmasked role—any face character—with “voice clearance,” deftly mimicking a dazzling variety of relatively obscure Disney characters only to be told that he’s not the right type for them.

Just 75 minutes without intermission, Working for the Mouse is a rollicking and bittersweet tale of disillusionment in a Magic Kingdom whose business is illusion. Like Allen himself, you’ll have trouble seeing Never Land the same way again after you’ve had this peek behind its pixie-dust curtain.

Working for the Mouse
Through July 16
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #61 of 2011, attended June 24.

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