The curtain rises to a rowboat floating across the stage and, from this moment on, the audience knows they will be in for a magical and unique performance of Alice in Wonderland at Shaw Festival.
Over the next two and a half hours, the technological wizardry used throughout the play trans-forms it into a visual feast. It has Alice swimming across the stage, falling down a rabbit hole, growing ten feet tall and shrinking down to the size of a mouse. This was all largely done with the use of spectacular video projections.
I’ve seen many plays but nothing topped this rendition of Alice in Wonderland for its blend of classical themes with modern digital technology. It was pulled off thanks to the husband and wife theatrical design duo, Beth Kate ad Ben Chaisson, who described the digital technology in Alice as “epic and operatic.”
Sometimes the best characters were created simply by the imagination, such as the clever creation of the caterpillar, which used six actors whose every movement was perfectly synchronized and choreographed to replicate the flow of a caterpillars legs. It was easily one of the most memorable scenes in the play.
One of the key challenges in producing a play with such a complicated storyline is not to get lost in the jumble of stories. On one level, Carroll’s play is simply the silly story of a little girl who en-counters odd characters in a dream-like journey.
So much seems to mean so little; the baby that turns into a pig, the tea party with no tea and the croquet game played with soft-necked flamingos. While it is amusing, it also appears to makes no sense.
The only character who questions the silliness of it all is Alice. When the Queen of Hearts, in a scene that dazzles for its costumes and choreography, declares herself the winner before the game has begun, Alice is the only one who loudly protests.
When the Cheshire Cat, played with great presence by Jenny Phipps, appears with only his grin, Alice questions where he’s gone and why he’s not himself. Phipps’ performance, in another
example of technological wizardry, was recorded in advance then projected onto the stage. It reminded me of the fiery wizard’s head in Wizard of Oz and came off with the same intensity.
Alice in Wonderland dates back to 1865 and was written by an Oxford mathematician by the name of Charles Dodgson who told his surreal story to the daughters of dean Henry Liddell as they rowed down the Thames River.
One of the daughters, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, apparently begged Dodgson to write the story down and Alice in Wonderland was born, written under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. On a deeper level – and this comes out in the play – there is an a existential theme woven throughout the story about fitting into a society that often make no sense and which relies too heavily on rules and regulations.
We are drawn in by Alice, a plucky child who disobeys and questions authority and is constantly told by her sister and other characters to behave and follow the rules. The lead is played beautifully by Tara Rosling, 40, who lived up to the challenge of playing a ten-year old girl.
It all comes together thanks to the talent and hard work of Peter Hinton who waded through three years of workshops to create this stage adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Hinton man-aged to stay true to the storyline and help the audience understand its underlying themes.
And in a play where the characters include a white rabbit with a pocket watch; a cat that disappears except for his grin; a girl who shrinks when she eats a cookie, that’s saying a lot.
If you’re looking for entertainment that will thrill the whole family this summer, put the Shaw Festival’s Alice in Wonderland at the top of your list.
By Denise Davy