At Dance Alloy Theatre's Feed Your Head Café, the black-and-white checkered floor spread the breadth of the stage. At the far end, a neon "Open" sign illuminated Dance Alloy artistic director Beth Corning -- costumed as a cross between a diner waitress and Disney's Alice in Wonderland -- as she descended from the large spiral-patterned backdrop where she had hung resembling a mannequin thrown against it. Seated on the stage, Corning pulled from her apron pockets a lighter, a cigarette and a bundle of dynamite. Then things got interesting.
In perhaps the most ambitious, detailed and visually striking dance-theater work Corning has created for Dance Alloy, the evening-length Feed Your Head Café was an introspective look at the disillusionments of growing older. Told through the eyes of Alice (Corning), the fiftysomething proprietor of a highly surreal café that might well be located in the storybook Wonderland, the Feed Your Head Café is a cryptic place where virtually everything is turned upside down, including the tables and chairs.
Through a series of well-conceived and -executed vignettes, and set to music from classical to Tom Waits, Alice takes the audience on a journey to a place where memories and illusion became one. It's a journey encompassing what once was, what remains unfulfilled, and what was lost -- the innocence of youth.
Joining Alice were guest dancers Greer Reed, as Alice's similarly costumed alter ego; café patron Clyde B. Jones; Tina Turner impersonator Jezebel D'Opulence; and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Aaron Ingley, as Alice's fantasy white knight. Serving as her sort-of Greek choruses were seven student dancers from CAPA, and Alloy's five other company members.
Through dialogue and dance, the chorus illuminated Alice's lament over leaving behind the wonderland of youth and facing adult life. It's a life she characterizes as "a series of rabbit holes and tea parties," where tea parties are filled with the chatter of lies, and youthful faces speak of wishing to be older. Meanwhile, Alice waits -- waits on tables, and waits on getting on with her own life.
Corning was captivating as Alice. Her stage presence, timing and wry humor balanced a deep sense of heartache within her character.
Other memorable performances included the Alloy's Michael Walsh, in Alice-like garb overseeing an early group in which he reveled with mad delight. There's also a trio including Corning and Walsh, with dancer Stephanie Dumaine sandwiched between them and acting as Alice's youthful and emotionless façade in a poignant waltz with Walsh's character. Another trio, riveting and aggressive, is set to the music of Philip Glass and features dancers Maribeth Maxa, Adrienne Misko and Scott Lowe dancing on, under and around a long white table that appeared to go on forever.
Rich with lasting images and full of surprises, Feed Your Head Café was a marvelous and gratifying trip down the rabbit hole and into the mind of a woman coming to terms with her life.
Dance Alloy Theater's Feed Your Head Café continues through April 13. New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. 412-363-4321 or visit www.dancealloy.org.