Alice in Wonderland: Alice unchained

publicity photo for Alice in Wonderland

Tess Benger plays a modern Alice in Wonderland. (Photo by John Holosko and Robert Metcalfe)

All alone in my office, I was laughing out loud and clapping my hands.

Bad Hat Theatre’s Alice in Wonderland is streaming online, but it does what theatre does best: it activates the concrete imagination. Without resorting to illusion, it uses sounds, bodies, and materials — clearly in a theatre, clearly in an artificial space — to create three-dimensional creatures and fully-fleshed worlds. It’s about pretending. That’s what I’ve been missing.

Writer Fiona Sauder has her way with Lewis Carrol’s source material. Sauder’s Alice starts in a contemporary Canadian classroom where the title character is getting into trouble for asking too many questions. To slip down the rabbit hole, she ducks under the chalkboard.

Sauder’s Wonderland is different from, Carrol’s: no flamingos are used as croquet mallets. And Sauder invents a narrative structure in which Alice has to work her way across a chessboard to become a queen.

This all feels fresh.

And the extraordinary cast delivers surprising characterizations. Jonathan Tan’s Cheshire Cat isn’t spooky or hallucinatory; he’s Zen and hip, a walking, laidback koan: “That’s a very good question.”

Tess Benger’s Alice is innocent yet feisty, a recognizable kid. Matt Pilipiak is hilarious as the exasperated White Rabbit. And Vanessa Sears avoids cliché as the Red Queen: charmingly sensual, she sings the house down.

This is a musical — with rhythmic, conversational songs by Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko — and this cast can sing! They’re also grabbing instruments all the time and providing their own accompaniment.

There is a downside: Bad Hats Alice in Wonderland is an hour and a half long without an intermission and nonsense-fatigue makes for diminishing returns. That will be especially true, I’m sure, for kids. You can always pause the show, of course, and get back to it. And, on request, Bad Hats will provide a digital workbook so you and your little ones can refresh yourselves with those activities.

Still, this Alice would be better shorter. Alice’s goal of becoming a queen doesn’t pack a lot of emotional weight and, with so little plot to advance, the songs could be fewer and shorter.

But these are caveats about a terrifically skilful show. Director Sue Miner effortlessly works multiple textures: dialogue scenes overlap with songs, choreography, and set changes. And, with costumer Ming Wong, Miner creates memorable pictures — working the Red Queen’s silk parachute skirt like malleable sculpture, for instance.

The refrain in the final number is reassuring: “Don’t be afraid, the thoughts in your head are in everyone’s.”

ALICE IN WONDERLAND Adapted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Fiona Sauder. Directed by Sue Miner. This Bad Hats Theatre production, which is being presented by Soulpepper, is available online until April 18. Here’s where to get tickets, which are $20 per household.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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