Alice in Wonderland
at Angel Island, through May 10
Any society that makes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland standard juvenile reading ought to be questioned closely about its treatment of children. Only a witless or self-absorbed or predatory adult could describe as “golden” an afternoon in which a defenseless seven-year-old girl lurches from one obscure peril to another. Perhaps Lewis Carroll was being satirical, but satire is lost on children, who are literal-minded enough to know when they’re being menaced without understanding why that’s supposed to be amusing. In any case, what’s amusing about a very young girl being placed in jeopardy while she’s asleep, especially when the person telling her story is a middle-aged man with whom she shouldn’t have been left alone?
When Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project adapted the story for the stage, as Alice in Wonderland, these threats, particularly the sexual threat, came to the fore. Their Alice is an inmate of an insane asylum of the Marat/Sade-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest variety, and her trip to Wonderland a psychotic episode acted out by supercilious doctors, power-mad nurses, sociopathic orderlies, and fellow inmates. Making Alice crazy is one way to approach the central dramatic problem of the story: a main character who doesn’t grow or change or take charge of her own fate but simply awakens to find that her adventures were just a dream. The company goes on to present her ultimate return to the real world as death.
Director Nick Minas claims to add another dimension, stating in his notes, “On her journey, Alice learns the lessons that help her to become a woman. She is taught that in order to move to the next square on the chessboard you must…learn to ‘get it yourself.'” If this were true, the Blindfaith Theatre production would be powerful and satisfying. Unfortunately it’s not. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is episodic, not dramatic: the protagonist doesn’t awaken after the Caucus-race or the Mad Tea-Party, not because she has lessons yet to learn but because the author hasn’t yet run out of invention. When he does, he shrugs his shoulders, wakes her up, and says it was all a dream. As a result, Alice the book leaves us flat, Alice the play still flatter.
The members of the young company give their all to this rendition and achieve some wonderful effects, as when they lash themselves together behind Brent Frost to help him represent the hookah-smoking caterpillar, with arms and hands and feet waving in all directions. The curiously, if aptly, described “violence design/movement choreography” by R&D Choreography includes innovative lifts and holds that show Alice falling, swimming, and getting stuck, and Denise Karczewski’s lighting design uses simple light and shadow effects to show her growing and shrinking. The production certainly mines the sexual vein in the text: Christopher Meister plays a character referred to in the program as Lewis, with a finely honed sense of sexual threat. But the threat, like the adventures, leads nowhere–if there are repercussions, they’re invisible. Did Gregory mean us to understand Alice’s “dying” in the Victorian sense of having an orgasm? Is that how she grows up? And is that her tragedy, or just her pedophile creator’s?
The riveting first act of this production suggests that these are questions worth exploring. But by the second act the director and actors have run out of steam, and every scene seems the same: Alice sulks till she screams till she escapes, or doesn’t. The production is also hampered by the sexism implicit in having the madhouse dominated by a hatchet-faced nurse who turns into the Red Queen (Pedra O’Rourke). This trope, probably borrowed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, may have been acceptable in the 70s, but it’s a bit tired now. Are we to infer that little girls are acceptable but that grown women are harridans? No doubt child molesters think so, but that hardly makes it true.
Whatever the adaptation’s weaknesses, the acting is superior. Meister is adorable as the March Hare and appropriately infuriating and deluded as Humpty Dumpty, and Jenny Lamb is extraordinary as Alice, finding exactly the right balance between childishness and maturity and resisting the temptation to be a one-dimensional victim. Jennifer Santanello stands out as, among others, the White Queen and the Frog-Footman, captured with nothing more than a green swim cap and a predatory crouch at the front of the stage.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, like many other aspects of childhood, is actually very serious. Kudos to Blindfaith for reminding us of that simple fact.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tabitha Pederson.