Inside the mind

Delving into the subconscious with Alice and her cohorts
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 18, 2007
LAND OF WONDER: Alice finds her way to the Players' Ring.

By now, the world down the rabbit hole has seen a lot of visitors. It’s been animated, sexualized, gentrified, and held up in the imposing voice of Grace Slick. In the directorial debut of Tana Sirois, for Ethereal Pants Productions at the Players’ Ring, we tumble down there again. But in this Alice in Wonderland, the trip comes free of gimmicks and fetishes, with no grand conceits other than a bracing, pure reminder of how disconcerting it can be in that sub-world beneath our consciousness.

Sirois’s production is marked by some fine character work, ample and diverse sensorial stimulation, and Jeanne McCartin’s remarkable costume design. Her interpretation doesn’t shake the well-known story too far from how most of us will remember it, from either the book or the Disney movie, but it is certainly an Alice for grown-ups. It succeeds not by reinventing the narrative wheel, but by embracing the traditional story at its pressure points. At its strongest moments, this Alice is as visceral as dreams themselves, and recalls the scariness, static, and delirium of what our subconscious can wreak.

Its virtuoso Alice (young Alana Thyng) does superb work portraying the vessel of all this madness. A genuine theatrical talent, Thyng has an impressively nuanced range of facial expressions, and her physical performance is intimidating, to say the least. Sirois often has her careening about the stage as if pushed and pulled by invisible forces, to quite convincing and spooky effect, and she’s also marvelous as she negotiates invisible waves as she’s swept in on the sea. She’s particularly excellent as she recites “The Jabborwock;” the unfamiliar words seem to prick, pull, and suffuse Alice like an invading poltergeist.

Alice luxuriates in a few more delicious character innovations, particularly when it comes to the flowers. Tiger Lily is Bartley Mullin in glam-chic drag, and together with Rose and Violet (Ashley Love and Eve Mugar, wearing dazzling hats of their respective blooms) they are a fabulously catty threesome that mocks Alice mellifluously.

Like the garb of the snobby blossoms, the rest of the costuming is imaginative and fun to behold. The Caterpillar wears his own big mushroom, and I was especially fond of the Duck’s get-up: a gold bathrobe, vest and sleeves trimmed with feathery yellow, and a downy yellow beret. The Red Queen is also impressive, both for her inspired heart-shaped collar/bodice and for Kristan Raymond Robinson’s spectacularly manic performance.

There are some aural as well as visual shenanigans at work in Sirois’s world. Behind Alice’s voice, frequently, the background chatter is louder than you’d expect of the ear’s peripheries, closer to the volume of the scene’s focus. In the Caucus Race scene, for example, the Duck, Lory, and Dodo mumble conspiratorially and incomprehensibly upstage, but are almost as loud as Alice, who has the script’s melody-line at the moment. The effect is much like what film director Robert Altman achieved in movies like Nashville — it pulls the surrounding world vertiginously close, and amplifies and distorts its influence. In Sirois’s Alice, the technique sometimes comes off as a little too arbitrary or simply distracting (and sometimes music levels, at least, should come down), but at its best it works to strain our senses to that intense saturation point that is so common, and often so frighteningly overwhelming, in our own dreams.

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