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In Wonderland — some of the time

by | Apr 9, 2022 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo: In Wonderland

Sarah Roa, Graham Percy, and Natascha Girgis at the Mad Hatter’s tea party
(Photo: Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that’s run so hot and cold. There are elements and passages in Alberta Theatre Projects’ In Wonderland that are transporting — and long stretches in which nothing fires.

In this two-act adventure, playwright Anna Cummer offers a three-actor riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

In several instances, director Haysam Kadri’s production rises to the challenge of its source material with astonishing visuals. In the introductory scene, Alice, her sister Lory, and a man named Charles — presumably a stand-in for Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson — paddle on a meandering river. To represent their journey, the three actors sit in a steamer trunk, pretending it’s a boat, and behind them, on the gigantic scrim at the Gateway Theatre, we see a gorgeous, antiquely brown-and-black watercolour video that represent the riverbanks they’re passing.

In a completely different visual style — the projection designs are all by Jamie Nesbitt — when Alice pops down the rabbit hole, we first see her in a pre-recorded video way up at the top of the proscenium, making her way through an angular, geometric passage. Then she falls, and the live actor (Sarah Roa) is suddenly illuminated behind the scrim, tumbling and tumbling through space. It’s trippy.

Which is to say nothing of the Cheshire Cat, who appears, thanks to set and costume designer Hanne Loosen, as a disembodied blue head with glowing yellow eyes. The head, a kind of lantern, is lit from within. And, hilariously, actor Graham Percy gives the Cat the voice of a smug stoner.

When Alice finally makes her way into the garden of the Queen of Hearts, a gigantic pink flamingo goes loping across a deep green background. Watching it, I couldn’t control myself and exclaimed “Yes!”

But, as I mentioned off the top, there’s also a lot that doesn’t work — including virtually all of Act 2. Too often, director Kadri resorts to generalized mayhem. In Act 1, the only thing that happens in the caucus race, which involves the Dodo, is that three actors run around the theatre wasting their energy. In Act 2, the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the entire Queen of Hearts sequence — which is long — get bogged down in unfocused jabber and equally unfocused stage business.

You can’t fault the actors, who are resourceful. Besides voicing the Cheshire Cat, Percy is hilarious as a pompous door and querulous five of hearts. As the low-status lizard with a ladder, Natasha Girgis delivers the wittiest characterization of the evening. Her tremulous timing is impeccable.

I suspect that the underlying problem with In Wonderland is that it lacks a central unifying principle. I first noticed an absence when Alice followed the White Rabbit down his rabbit hole. “Why is she doing that?” I wondered. I didn’t understand the bizarre choice in terms of her character, and there was no sense that this decision could risk consequences.

In his notes, director Kadri observes that Cummer’s adaptation focuses on the agency of the child — and the script makes a point of stating that Alice is learning from her mistakes. Yeah. Sure. Commendable. Whatever. But there’s no spin in this approach; it doesn’t give Alice any character beyond earnestness. And it hobbles actor Roa, who gives us a perfectly reasonable rendition of generic innocence, but that is, inevitably, not very interesting.

The source material — and even the script — hints at a more engaging potential angle: Alice is an experiential glutton. She drinks from a bottle, eats a cake, and licks a mushroom — at first, just to find out what will happen and then, once she’s got the hang of it, to make herself expand and shrink. In one of the most telling passages in the script, she says, “What’s this? A bottle. I know I shouldn’t. But something interesting is bound to happen.”

There’s no evidence that Lewis Carroll used opium or laudanum recreationally, and I’m not suggesting it would be a good idea to make Alice a little dopehead. I am suggesting that it might be more narratively and thematically productive to make her ravenously curious. And curiouser and curiouser.

IN WONDERLAND By Anna Cummer, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Directed by Haysam Kadri. An Alberta Theatre Projects production at the Gateway Theatre on Friday, April 8. Presented with Chinese surtitles. Continues until April 16. Tickets


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