People love to hate on Disney. Trevor Allen, whose Working for the Mouse runs though December 17, 2011, at the Exit Theater, is not one of them. His 80-minute monologue about life inside Pluto, Mad Hatter and other character costumes at Disneyland from the late 1980s to the early 1990s is a self-described coming-of-age tale, with all the sentimentality that accompanies such yarns. Allen gives an energetic and sincere performance -- his training at Disneyland has served him well -- but at 40-something, Allen may be a bit long in the tooth to play the wide-eyed teenager.
With its debut at the 1996 Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, where it won a Best of Fringe award, and productions at the Impact Theatre in Berkeley in 2002 and again this year, this latest stop for Mouse is something of a victory lap for Allen. It's also another in a long line of victories for the one-person show, the economics of which are undeniably good for performers and theaters alike in these budget-conscious times. Indeed, Allen would probably not have been able to perform his show, originally titled Character!, in Edinburgh if he had to pay the way of fellow Casual Seasonal Pageant Helpers such as Gary, whom Allen voices like Baby Herman in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jason (a stereotypical stoner) and Tammy, the girl he has a crush on (she strolls the Happiest Place on Earth as Alice in Wonderland).
Disney is a popular target for comedians, cultural critics and monologists alike because the chasm between its promise of happy innocence for its young target audience and the often heartless way it treats the adults who toil to entertain those children is so gaping. Lots of companies treat their employees poorly, but Disney's hypocrisy (everyone is invited to wish upon a star and have their dreams come true, except its minimum-wage employees) seems more egregious than that of WalMart, Starbucks or California Pizza Kitchen, which dispense jobs you assume will suck.
The truth, then, is that plenty of workers endure indignities every bit as bad as those who get paid to walk around Disneyland in a character costume, and most of the world's population fares a good deal worse. But a pizza cook at CPK probably has no delusions of being the next Wolfgang Puck. During his tenure at Disneyland, Allen harbored an even grander fantasy: "Being Pluto was cool," he confides, "but it wasn't what I wanted to be." Allen had his sights set on being the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan.
As coming-of-age metaphors go, this is a tad predictable. Equally unsurprising are the tales of drinking and doing drugs behind the scenes, although I am glad to have learned the meaning of the term Matterhorning (the jargon that peppers Allen's piece is great fun). But Allen's breathless recollection of unintentionally eating a hash brownie, particularly the intense effect it produced during his two-minute trip on the Alice in Wonderland ride, is rookie material. Get back to me, dude, when you've navigated the park for six hours flying high on actual LSD.
Better are the moments in Allen's performance when he's face to character mask with all those little kids for whom Disneyland was a place of unimagined wonder. Characters see firsthand that look in a little boy or girl's eyes. Those kids believed in Allen's Pluto, and loved him unconditionally.
Allen was smart enough to ignore the cynical advice given him by the grizzled Disneyland vet Gary. Allen actually cared about these kids; some have literally made it their last wish to be here. And he was correct to chafe at a corporate system that was so narrow-minded, it did not recognize the magic it worked so hard to contrive when it appeared organically in their midst. Such was the case when the axle on a parade float broke and Allen the Hatter engaged the kids in the restless crowd in a game of baseball, complete with a make-believe ball. For a brief moment, Allen was making Disney dreams come true. Problem was, it wasn't in the Disney script.
Working for the Mouse runs through December 17, 2011 at the Exit Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit theexit.org.