Go Ask Alice

Review of Alice in Wonderland, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s summer of Seven Deadly Sins has begun with a two-week run of Alice in Wonderland based on a energetic adaptation by the Manhattan Project.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were always about coping with childhood. Charles Dodgson composed the tales to amuse a young girl with take-offs on “grown-up” behavior and the kinds of inspired nonsense that delights because it doesn’t try to instruct. As does this show, most adaptations combine elements of both stories—in the first, Alice goes down the rabbit hole after the White Rabbit, in the second, she goes through a mirror. In both, she encounters figures from common nursery rhymes and other characters less explicable. A later age might seek neurosis in Alice’s adventures, but Carroll’s text wreaks havoc with efforts to explicate the whimsy of the imagination.

As re-conceived by theater director Andre Gregory with the Manhattan Project, Alice takes on the tone of the old “the inmates run the asylum” trope, so that anyone supposedly rational, such as Alice, will be bedeviled by the willful inanity of her interlocutors. As adapted for the Yale Summer Cabaret by Co-Artistic Director Jesse Rasmussen, Gregory’s script gets revamped as an Alice facing gleefully playful playground theater. The show is deeply suggestive of the creativity—and the misgivings—that are part and parcel of childhood.

 Alice (Sydney Lemmon) and cast members of Alice in Wonderland

Alice (Sydney Lemmon) and cast members of Alice in Wonderland

As played by willowy Sydney Lemmon, Alice is full of a youthful curiosity and an engaging willingness to be engaged. She wants her oddball playmates to make sense and to be amusing and informative. And most of them—a companionable Rabbit (Paul Cooper), an acerbic Hatter (Ricardo Dávila), a haughty Caterpillar (Marié Botha), an eerie Cheshire Cat (Brontë England-Nelson), a vaporish Humpty Dumpty (Patrick Foley)—try to be. But the further Alice goes into what seems to be a dream-logic version of something she might have read, the less likely it is that anything will make sense to her satisfaction. Her mind plays tricks on her, seeming to make her a younger child again, sometimes tall, sometimes small, and often incapable of reciting rhymes the way she learned them. And some of the other characters might be leading her away from her studied innocence. By show’s end she may be done with make-believe altogether.

Staged with Haydee Antunano’s elegantly simple white costumes and Zoe Hurwitz’s backdrop of books painted white, Rasmussen’s vision of the show incorporates imaginary props—the way children playing often do—and devised moments, such as the Red Queen (Brontë England-Nelson) giving an arch rendering of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” There’s inventiveness aplenty, and the figures who might have wisdom to impart—such as Botha’s stern (and stoned) Caterpillar, or Foley’s insecure Humpty Dumpty—turn out to be more in need of help than helpful. And that goes double for figures who might be expected to be authoritative, such as the White Queen (England-Nelson, in her most winning role) and the White Knight (Cooper). Led by Dávila’s slippery performance, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as it should be, plays as the centerpiece with its lesson in how polite norms can be subverted, and how the art of conversation might be nothing more than a gift for entertaining non sequitur.

The show’s pace could pick up in some places and Rasmussen allows or encourages a few too many accents, where a more distinctive and less regional voice would do, but the real delight here is in the physicality of the show. Lemmon bends like a sapling and becomes acrobatic at times in her movement through a space peopled by the other cast members in a balletic frenzy of attitudes that is remarkably changeable.

Paul Cooper keeps his eye on the gravitas in the proceedings. He begins the show as Carroll narrating Alice's initial confusion, then takes part as the White Rabbit and others, to finally end up as the White Knight who tries to interest Alice in his inventions. With a somewhat Shakespearean song that pits odd activities against utterly absurd flights of fancy, the Knight draws from Alice her most emotive response. It’s as if she suddenly sees through the refusal to make sense and discovers how debilitating prolonged childhood can be.

 Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Gregory’s text ends with something like a coda, a cascade of words à la James Joyce (the last word in the coda is “and,” famously the last word of the Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s dream book, and that’s no coincidence I’m sure) that covers here the transition from the rabbit hole world to the book Alice reads. “Wonderland” may be the resources of her own imagination or the inspiration reading brings. In any case, the bizarre journey seems to take Alice to the cusp of young adulthood.

At the Criterion Cinema, Disney’s new version of Through the Looking Glass is playing. A sequel to the travesty of Alice in Wonderland already perpetrated by the world-wide hit the studio unleashed in 2010, the film, I have no doubt, is vastly inferior to the low budget, live action, basement staging at the Summer Cabaret. In this Alice, the special effects are all in our minds—and that’s fitting, for that’s ultimately where Alice lives.

 

Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll’s classic as adapted by The Manhattan Projection under Andre Gregory
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Costume Designer: Haydee Antunano; Set Designer: Zoe Hurwitz; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Production/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Choreographer: Emily Lutin

Cast: Marié Botha; Paul Cooper; Ricardo Dávila; Brontë England-Nelson; Patrick Foley; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Summer Cabaret 2016: Seven Deadly Sins

Jesse Rasmussen, Artistic Director; Elizabeth Dinkova, Artistic Director; Emily Reeder, Producing Director; Sam Linden, General Manager; Jordan Graf, Management Associate; Anna Belcher, Chef; Aaron Wegner, Design Associate

June 2-19, 2016