Emanon Theater

at Halsted Theatre Centre

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably one of the most analyzed works of juvenile literature in the Western world. In the 1960s readers focused on the hallucinogenic drugs the shy mathematics professor/author must have taken to achieve his flights of fancy. In the 1970s they turned to possible pedophiliac elements of the author’s character. In the 1980s it was his heroine’s turn to be scrutinized, as scholars looked for traces of feminism. In the long run, however, these revisionist interpretations revealed more about current academic fashions and icons than about the psychology of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, whose stories were composed not for any heterogeneous mass market but for one child firmly positioned within his own time, place, and social circle.

Carroll’s restricted universe, coupled with the intellectual density of his prose, is precisely what makes Alice’s adventures so foreign to modern juvenile audiences. How much sympathy can they muster for Alice when she’s unable to recite “How doth the little busy bee” when they don’t know Isaac Watts’s saccharine little ditty or that any schoolgirl of the 1860s would have memorized it? What can a culture ignorant of afternoon tea make of the eternal four o’clock rituals of the Mad Hatter? And what is a “hatter” anyway to wearers of ski caps from K mart and baseball caps from Wrigley Field? An adaptation that retains too many of these period details will certainly not hold a four- or five-year-old’s attention. But too little of such detail will transform the story into a whole new tale entirely.

In its adaptation Emanon Theater attempts to walk a line between these two extremes. The script includes explanations of the more arcane terms–for example, when the Dormouse remarks upon a hypothetical diet of treacle Alice protests, “Treacle? But that’s just like molasses!” Also sprinkled throughout are references to contemporary art forms presumably familiar to children–TV game shows, Bugs Bunny cartoons, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and even the advertisements for Energizer batteries. Unfortunately, though, there are also several sly jokes highly uncharacteristic of Emanon’s usual style. Adults will recognize references to Chekhov’s Three Sisters, to the 1959 song “High Hopes,” and to the 1975 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but these are likely to be lost on children. The tie-dyed costumes and other psychedelic motifs in this production are sufficiently distanced these days from their sinister origins to be suitable for family fare–though the caterpillar has traded in his water pipe for a bubble-blowing kit. The draconian Red Queen bears a vague resemblance to Mae West, and the Dormouse is dressed in an old-fashioned aviator’s scarf and goggles–perhaps in imitation of Snoopy or the narrator of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.

None of these anachronisms seemed to matter to the children in the audience, however much they may have bothered adult Alice fans. Emanon Theater has always excelled at presenting swiftly paced spectacles geared to youngsters’ attention spans, and this show contains plenty of frenzied action as well as the call-and-response games that allow audience participation (and these kids were not shy about participating–indeed, their enthusiasm proved to be too much for a couple of very young children who were distressed by all the noise and commotion). Some of the performers still seem uncertain of their characters–understandable considering that Carroll’s characters also reflect a long-gone culture–but engaging performances are to be had from Danny Robles as “Hal Epeno” the pepper-loving Cook, Jason Lubow as a Cheshire Cat with a smile like a baby grand, Joseph Albright as a Milquetoast White Rabbit, and Stephanie Repin as the much put-upon Alice.

This Alice in Wonderland is ultimately saved by the skill and sincerity of the Emanon troupers. Diehard Alice aficionados may grumble that Carroll wouldn’t recognize his own creation, but the audience for which it was designed–the children–will have no reason to quarrel with this production.