No method to this madness

Epic's 'Alice in Wonderland'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 29, 2013

theater_alice_top.jpg 
MIXED-UP METAPHORS Fennell, Lewis, Flynn, and Donnelly. [Photo by Kevin Broccoli]

Clever idea, setting Lewis Carroll's surreal Alice books in an insane asylum. But like many simple creative notions that are roiling with complexity under the surface, it can be woefully difficult to pull off.

Epic Theatre Company is staging Andre Gregory's Alice In Wonderland (through June 8), directed by Terry Shea, in a production that has many strong moments but as a whole diminishes rather than enhances Carroll's imaginative offerings.

In 1970 this play was the high point of avant-garde director Gregory's career. Created by the Manhattan Project, it compresses the storylines of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and its follow-up Through the Looking-Glass into 90 minutes of amusing confusions and existential subtext. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was Carroll's real name, and the first listeners to his tales were 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her two young sisters, as he rowed them down a river near Oxford. She begged him to write it down for her, and modern English children's literature had an 1865 departure date.

In this version, Alice (Amy Lee Connell) enters in trepidation, like the first visit of a prisoner to the exercise yard. She sits down and folds herself protectively, as though awaiting baton blows. Five others, also wearing hospital blues, join her. One of them rubs against her like a cat; another approaches and bares his teeth. She starts reciting Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky," which begins, " 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe," and the account of childish adventure is continued by the five. One of them recites the opening of Alice's Adventures, the description of her tumbling down, down, down.

Photographs of kids take turns filling a background corner, as they hold a picture book and wear a paper crown, reminding us of the best state of mind in which to take all this in. If the tale has anything besides entertainment to provide us adults, it's the theme of change. Alice is in an identity quandary that, if she were older, could be an identity crisis. A "Drink Me" potion makes her smaller, and she says her size isn't a bother, but that changing so often is. The caterpillar asks "Who are you?" and she says she hardly knows.

By this time we have fully entered a world of overlapping madness and bemused, fraught frivolity. If we were crazy, we could only hope to adapt so well.

Everyone but Connell, at the vortex of this slow-motion storm, plays several characters. Meryn Flynn is properly imperious as the Queen of Hearts. Samantha Gaus is a self-assured, obliviously imperiled Humpty Dumpty. Meghan Rose Donnelly puts on a delicious French accent as the Mouse. Curiously, Ronald Lewis doesn't magnify a grin as the Cheshire Cat.

Shawn Fennell is the standout here, but the Mad Hatter isn't his most engaging character. He staggers around silently clanking as the Red Knight, in manic satisfaction; his Dirigible Prince deflates amusingly when Alice sticks in a pin; his lanky frame allows him to be a convincing human croquet hoop. Fennell's tendency to roar at maximum volume sometimes throws a moment off balance, but in general his intensity provides the pulse of the play.

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