imaginary beasts’ “Alice in Wonderland”

alice

Created by the Manhattan Theatre Project
Based on the novel by Lewis Carroll
Presented by Imaginary Beasts
Directed by Matthew Woods

April 1 – 23, 2016
Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont Street, Boston
Imaginary Beasts on Facebook

Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA) It is no small challenge to take on a piece with so much cultural baggage as Alice in Wonderland.  Audiences have seen, heard, and read this story over and over again from our childhoods unto the present day.  Alice is everywhere in so many forms that adding something new to the tale is a Herculean task.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that artistic director Matthew Woods quite had a handle on it.

This Alice is tedious and trite, full of tropes we’ve already seen.  Alice has been done as a half-insane drug-induced stupor.  Alice has been done as a dark and discordant remix.  Alice has been done minimalistically with creepy undertones.  Woods cites André Gregory’s Manhattan Theatre Project Alice as the inspiration for his current iteration.  Before the production I saw, Woods addressed the audience revealing a childhood fascination with this production and the imagery which came from it.  It almost seemed like he was attempting to recapture this imagery and fascination without remembering to add his own voice to the mix.

The program note (and Woods’ opening address) tell us that this Alice resonates with the world today and has some modern relevance.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see this either.  The anecdotal adventures of Alice were told true to their representation in Carroll’s novel, but didn’t seem to hold the promised contemporary importance.  It almost seemed like an afterthought on the part of the company to add this buzzword to their press pieces without incorporating the idea into their artwork first.

The piece is poorly designed.  Christopher Becchaire’s motley assortment of ladders and paraphernalia litter the stage; that part works fine.  The problem occurs when three lighting fixtures created from inflated plastic bags hang low from the already-low grid, blocking much of the onstage action.  The BCA Plaza blackbox is a small space which shouldn’t, rightly, have sightline issues.  It’s a marvel that Becchaire managed to create some.  Even contorting in our seats and craning our necks, we couldn’t manage to actually see pieces of the performance because of these lighting fixtures.

The design also led to several moments of extreme tension not for dramatic reasons, but because I was worried about the safety of the actors onstage.  The tea party scene calls for three actors playing the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse to sit at a long table created out of a wooden plank set on a small footstool.  This allowed the actors to comically and effectively see-saw the table for dramatic purposes.  What it should not have allowed, but Woods didn’t see fit to stop, was the actors to stand on this rickety surface.  As the Mad Hatter fumbled for his footing, I was tense with concern watching the footstool that his plank sat upon tip and tumble, barely righting itself just in time.  In that same scene, actors were encouraged to attack each others’ heads and faces with unforgiving objects (spoons and dishes).  This production needed to take a careful look at what I call the “toddler test”: if you wouldn’t let a toddler do it, then don’t ask an actor to.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of all of this is that it creates a system that fails to support the performers.  These actors are incredibly talented and they are giving their hearts and souls to this piece.  Their vivacious physical performances are entrancing and nothing short of dazzling.  Amy Meyer as Alice is wide-eyed and believable with a sweet Victorian disposition and a generous soul.  The rest of the cast functions as a seamless ensemble in a variety of characters to bring Wonderland to life.  They transform themselves tirelessly from part to part without missing a beat.  Michael Chodes is wacky without flying too far off the handle.  Cameron Cronin is august and forthright, kindly yet foreboding.  Kiki Samko is authoritative and strong.  William Schuller is madly shrewd and shrewdly mad.  I am sorry to say that not even these performers could rescue the piece; despite their immense efforts I found myself bored and frustrated by the end.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that Wonderland is a tricky business.  You can’t venture there unless you are dedicated to trying something completely new, completely different, and completely fresh; but you’ll have a hard time finding something that fits the bill.  I can’t recommend a trip there with the Beasts this time, try as I might to find some way to support these tremendous performers.

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