The Shaw Festival Takes Alice Down A Dismal Rabbit Hole

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Alice in Wonderland

Adapted for the stage by PETER HINTON
Based on the book by LEWIS CARROLL
Directed by PETER HINTON
Musical direction by ALLEN COLE

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. —  Briefly — very briefly — you’re thinking that the Shaw Festival’s expensive new version of Alice In Wonderland will be a thing of wonder and delight.

Director Peter Hinton and designers Eo Sharpe (sets) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting) begin by giving us startling visuals that transform the Festival Theatre stage into a miracle of shimmering, pastoral  beauty. We’re entering the 19th Century world of Lewis Carroll and witnessing the genesis of a classic work of children’s literature. And the  very fact that Carroll (in reality Oxford cleric and mathematician Charles Dodgson) is in a boat, gliding tranquilly through a watery landscape that isn’t really there, provides early assurance that we will, in fact, be entering a truly make-believe dimension.

A pity that it soon proves to be the wrong kind of make-believe.

This opening scene, on the Isis River, is based on fact, with Carroll sharing the  boat with the fabled Liddell sisters and — at the urging of the middle child, Alice — entertaining them with fanciful stories about what happens when a young girl falls down a rabbit hole.

But the warning signals start sounding as soon as Tara Rosling opens her mouth. This actress, one of the most gifted and versatile members of the festival acting company, plays Alice. And Rosling does so with such strident, irritating precocity that you wonder whether she found inspiration for her assignment in the comic strips — in the world of Peanuts and the character of the insufferable Lucy.

It’s fine to have a bright inquisitive Alice who’s capable of responding with scepticism to her adventures — after all, she must be tough-minded enough near the end  to bring the Queen of Hearts and her court crashing down — but too often this Alice comes across as little more than petulant. As for displaying even a hint of vulnerability — perish the thought!

And how easy is it to accept her as a child? The production’s obsession with manufacturing knock-out visuals at the expense of the material provides the answer to that question. There’s a moment early on when the show’s projection designers — in a moment of aren’t-we-clever excess —  expand Alice’s scowling visage to grotesque, stage-consuming dimensions, leaving us in no doubt whatsoever that she is being portrayed by an adult actress. But then the effects wizards zoom in on one eyeball — in a manner reminiscent of a decidedly unsettling moment in one of Hitchcock’s greatest films — and that’s when you seriously begin wondering about the kind of audience this production of Alice In Wonderland is supposed to be attracting.

Given that this is the festival’s big family show, reportedly the most expensive production in its history, as well as central to its strategy to rescue the Shaw from a troubling deficit of more than a million dollars, that question is unhappily unavoidable.

In his director’s notes, Peter Hinton quotes Virginia Woolf on Alice In Wonderland: “Down the groves of pure nonsense, consciously defiant, we whirl, laughing, laughing at the things that will only bring sorrow and complication when we grow up.” And Hinton himself writes about finding illumination in “in the perspectives of child life and the processes of growing up.” So where does that take us?

To be sure it’s true that for decades Alice and her creator have provided fruitful grounds for psychological interpretation. And Hinton, a genuinely creative artist  always ready to ferret out intriguing subtext from his material, seems to have two main purposes in his adaption . He has talked about his desire to puncture the myth of Victorian reserve and give us a world of unfettered Victorian imagination — and what better conduit for this than the fantasy universe of Lewis Carroll? He also seemingly wants to give us a coming-of-age piece. So why is the end result such a downer? And how much affection does Hinton really have towards this material?

That magnified eyeball we’re subjected to early on becomes, in Kubrickesque fashion the rabbit hole that takes Alice and us to her adventures. But here, we’re scuttling after the White Rabbit into a numbing dramatic void.

Naturally, we’re exposed to the familiar narrative set pieces — Alice shrinking and Alice growing large; the Mad Tea Party; the croquet game; the Duchess and the squalling baby; the final confrontation with the Queen of Hearts. Some of these moments work: the creation of the caterpillar, out of five actors dextrously folded one against the other, is the evening’s most striking visual achievement — and the one that significantly has nothing to do with show-off special effects. But most moments don’t work, and merely become tiresome.

Several losing factors are at play here: on the one hand, an inability by cast members to make their characters at all interesting; on the other hand some surprisingly awkward staging — for example, Hinton fails to meet the admittedly tricky challenge of bringing off that bizarre croquet game in which flamingos are used as mallets. You get to the Mad Tea Party, and the frenetic energy of Graeme Somerville’s Mad Hatter and Kyle Blair’s March Hare seems wasted. The scene also provides the most infuriating example of the production’s repeated failure to deal with the brilliant verbal nonsense so inherent to Lewis Carroll’s world.

We also have festival veteran Jennifer Phipps’s beaming countenance making an orange-hued, digitally recreated  arrival above the stage as the face of the Cheshire cat. Phipps handles her speeches with droll, feline elegance, but again there’s a problem. She still looks a lot like Jenny Phipps, not much like a cat,  and not at all like Sir John Tenniel’s original illustration — and her appearance in the sky lacks context.

Indeed, lack of context is a besetting sin in a lumbering production so intent on seducing us with a dazzling procession of visual effects that it ignores the need for an emotionally sustaining narrative line and instead seems content to inflict dull conversation after dull conversation on us. The lesson here is painfully straightforward: design magic at the expense of everything else is ultimately no magic at all. Can the audience really fathom what’s going on? Should they really care about what’s going on?

How could so many immensely gifted people come such a cropper? If, as has been reported, this show has been three years in the making, the mystery becomes even more depressing. In fairness, it’s possible to extract occasional nuggets of pleasure from a generally charmless and soulless evening. Neil Barclay is a good enough actor to give us a witty version of a French mouse out of a few lines of dialogue, and later stomp his way entertainingly through the role of a Wonderland executioner. Moya O’Connell, through sheer force of personality, makes something out of the volatile Queen of Hearts — and really the script gives her little to work with. But in general the characterizations are unmemorable.

Alice In Wonderland has an outstanding costume designer in William Schmuck — but here his efforts range from the picturesque to the inexplicable. There’s something amiss in a production that subjects us to a White Rabbit whom many people may not even recognize as the White Rabbit — and what’s with those funny little ears? And maybe it’s best to draw a veil over the normally reliable Denise Clarke’s choreography: it tends to be clunky.

There’s an old joke about audience members departing from an extravagantly designed piece of bad theatre humming the sets. This may well be the case at Niagara, given that they won’t be coming out humming  Allen Cole’s generally undistinguished music. Oh dear, goodness gracious — did we forget to mention that Alice In Wonderland purports to be some kind of musical as well? Curiouser and curiouser as Alice might say. Indeed, it is.

(Alice In Wonderland continues at the Shaw Festival to Oct. 16. Ticket

information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)


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