Next Theatre Company’s Next Lab

For a man who enthused so insistently about the purity, innocence, and even “divinity” of children, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson–aka Lewis Carroll–put plenty of dark streaks in his writings for the little buggers. Commenting on his fantasy classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll described the prototypical child as “a spirit fresh from God’s hands, on whom no shadow of sin, and but the outermost fringe of the shadow of sorrow, has yet fallen . . . the life that is but an overflowing love.” Yet the Alice books are filled not only with hints of death and terror, but also with cynical contempt for the state of society. Whether he intuited that children had far nastier senses of humor than he could publicly acknowledge, or whether his fondness for children and his affinity for writing books for them was an outlet for a profound disillusion, Carroll’s literary power derives from the conflicting delight and despair in his writing.

So any adaptation of Carroll’s work must express both the harshness and whimsy of the writer’s vision to do it justice. Most movies and plays based on the Alice stories have emphasized their charm over their cruelty; the Next Lab’s production of Carroll’s 1875 poem The Hunting of the Snark errs in the other extreme. This clever, eccentric, slightly scary, and always witty spoof of Victorian adventure epics has been made weirdly hostile, tense, and alienating in director-adapter Steve Pickering’s artistically exploratory but frustratingly incomprehensible production.

While audience appreciation is not necessarily the best gauge of quality–e.g. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera–there’s clearly something wrong with a version of The Hunting of the Snark that gets nary a laugh. Some kids may take to the show’s edgy hyperactivity, but the delicious verbal wit that makes the poem fun to read is hopelessly lost, partly because of inconsistent articulation by the actors but mostly because of the way Pickering (a very gifted actor here making his directorial debut) buries the verse under a ton of colorful but messy activity and visual effects that look like leftovers from Michael Maggio’s misshapen A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Pickering starred last season at the Goodman.

This is a real shame, because Pickering’s view of the material is informed and insightful as well as rebellious. Carroll dedicated his poem to an eight-year-old girl he described in a prefatory verse as “girt with a boyish garb for boyish task”; Pickering rightly sees The Hunting of the Snark as an antiepic, a spoof of boys’ adventure stories conceived for girls pissed off at being restricted to dollies and doilies. Rather than simply writing an adventure story with girl heroes, Carroll created a tale of men on a quest that ends up as a critique of his nation’s imperialistic adventurism–and of male adults’ ambitions as seen through the curious, irreverent eyes of a female child.

Written in the galloping gait of classic English ballad meter (quatrains of alternating four- and three-foot iambic rhythms), The Hunting of the Snark tells of eight ambitious argonauts who set off in a boat that can barely sail to follow a blank map in pursuit of a creature that may not exist. Nobody’s ever seen a Snark, the narrator tells us; but the Bellman, leader of the pack (everyone is identified by his profession–how male can you get?), describes the monster’s “five unmistakable marks”: a crisp but meager taste, a habit of getting up late, a slow sense of humor, a fondness for bathing machines, and ambition. (As any child might note, families are full of these creatures; they’re also called parents.) It is best pursued–according to a refrain, which in Next Lab’s show is sung as a world-music chant with a heavy backbeat–with thimbles and care, forks and hope, smiles and soap. Most of its species are harmless, easily served with greens and handy for striking a light. But when a Snark is a Boojum–beware.

In its eight stanzas, or “fits,” the poem traces the ill-fated hunt, never missing a chance to veer into nonsensical speeches and fantasies concerning arithmetic, naval codes, cuisine, mapmaking, insurance policies, and (in a long, hilariously spooky dream sequence worthy of the Alice books) Her Majesty’s legal system.

In these seemingly digressive passages, Carroll systematically skewers the adult pretensions his characters represent. Each man approaches his quest from the narrow point of view of his own self-image, and each man fails. The Barrister dreams of a trial in which the Snark is attorney, judge, and jury (the defendant has been dead for years anyway); the Banker, attacked by a particularly frumious Bandersnatch, tries to buy the creature off with a check but ends up being driven mad with horror and fear; the Baker, a dear little fool, meets a terrible fate at the story’s climax (Pickering’s staging of this scene is particularly murky and annoying).

In the midst of all this defeat and disillusionment, there’s one notable success: the unlikely friendship that develops between the Butcher and the Beaver. Since when the trip begins the Butcher admits the only thing he can kill is beavers (in Pickering’s staging the Butcher wields a pretty scary-looking beaver cleaver), their emerging comradeship–pure and faithful and everlasting–is a major moral victory; it’s hard not to see the relationship as Carroll’s metaphor for “that tenderest joy, the heart-love of a child” in which he found solace from the stupidities and cruelties of the world.

But those stupidities and cruelties are what drive this production, robbing it of the sweetly sly humor of its source. Seeking to frame the show for a contemporary kids’ sensibility shaped by heavy-metal music videos and TV series like 21 Jump Street, Pickering buries Carroll’s verse under an insistent barrage of aggressive activity and noise. The small stage is dominated by a huge 1954 Chevy seemingly vandalized by generations of spray painters (but actually created by Pickering, John Gegenhuber, Rick Haefele, and David Schulte); the actors tumble and clamber over, under, around, and inside the auto like kids in a junkyard, accompanied by a sound track that ranges from Frank Sinatra’s “The Lady Is a Tramp” to 1950s horror-movie music to the latest in industrial-noise rock (Michael Bodeen is credited for the sound design).

The nine-person cast–almost all females dressed up as men in a way that makes them seem more like adolescent girls than the grown women most of them are–project a relentlessly tough and thuggish attitude. Anne Hubbard as the Bellman smokes cigarettes and assumes a series of macho stances in her brown leather jacket and black boots; most of the others bark their lines in a loud, coarse tone that may be just an effort to be heard but comes off as ugly, defiant, even a little threatening. The notable exception is Alison Halstead, successfully forceful yet vulnerable (and refreshingly articulate) as the Baker. Most of the others, trying to imitate boys, just end up being pricks.

Pickering’s casting of women in eight of the story’s nine roles is more than just an equal-opportunity gesture; it’s his key to exposing The Hunting of the Snark’s rejection of traditional barriers between the powerful and “important” (male grownups) and the powerless and trivial (females and children). Tellingly, the one man in the cast is Charley Sherman, who plays both Carroll and the Butcher. Denisha Powell, who plays the Beaver, is the company’s only child; she also plays Gertrude Chataway, the poem’s dedicatee. Thus the relationship forged by Butcher and Beaver emerges clearly onstage as the companionship of grown man and little girl.

But this insightful touch makes it all the more annoying when little Powell brings the show to an end by abruptly flipping it off with a television remote control, which she points first at Sherman and then at the audience as a cue for the lights to black out. Seeking to present Carroll’s poem in the format of a 1990s kids’ TV show, Pickering and his company evoke the irritating, confusing, corrosive garbage that passes for children’s entertainment all too well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.