Adapted by Mary Hall Surface from a story by Charles Dodgson, who wrote as Lewis Carroll
Directed by Mary Hall Surface
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
What churl could not love a stage adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? What sort of cretin would not melt like a caramel nougat left in the sun to see this clever and plucky child, struggling with a pack of cards come to life, and with a feline who is all grin and no cat, and with a crazy hatter, and with a croquet mallet made of flamingo, and with a dozen other things no child in her right mind would have ever conceived? The story, after all, has gone through over a hundred English-language editions, and has been translated into a hundred twenty-five languages, including Esperanto. And it is here adapted by the great Mary Hall Surface, who gave us the wondrous Second Shepard’s Play at Folger’s two years ago and whose knack with children’s material is fully established. What’s more, it’s presented by an absolutely swell cast, with sterling technical elements. Who would not be in love with that? What sort of nattering greybeard would he have to be? What Scrooge? What lawyer? What Republican?
Well. Disney, Inc. to the contrary, the first question is whether Alice should be seen through the eyes, as opposed to the mind, at all. Imagine (and this will be easy) a shy mathematician rowing up the River Thames with three young girls and a cleric. The girls are bored and demand a story. And so he begins, spinning out the uses of magic as only a mathematician can, confounding the children with a slew of logical contradictions and impossible things in order to break down the rational mind’s resistance, and leave them fully open to enchantment.
You see the problem, I hope. Once the impossible is brought to the stage, it becomes possible, and the door to enchantment closes. Surface’s version begins with Alice (Meghan Grady) about to celebrate her thirteenth birthday when an exceptionally well-dressed rabbit (Chris Wilson) runs by, checking his pocket watch and muttering about an appointment. This seems so much more interesting to Alice than birthday cake, so she follows the rabbit into a hole, where she falls – all the way to New Zealand, one of the adults she leaves behind incorrectly speculates – and lands in a hall full of locked doors. Her only key opens a door too small to pass through, so she drinks an elixir which makes her tiny. But then she can no longer reach the key, which she left on the table, and thus she eats a cake which makes her huge. Now she can’t fit through the door. She weeps in frustration, and then gets small and swims in her own tears. She is joined by a bevy of mice and birds, who she terrifies with fond reminiscences about her cat. Eventually, they drag themselves ashore, where a mouse (Marcus Kyd) attempts to dry them off by exposing them to the driest thing he knows: a lecture on William the Conqueror.
Grady, a Synetic veteran, moves with the grace of a ballerina, but even she cannot grow larger and smaller on command. The background, being unaffected by magic, similarly remains the same size, so that at all times Grady and her background are the same relative to each other. To better demonstrate the story’s development, the ensemble cast periodically brings a tiny door or a huge key onstage or takes it off, or the white rabbit appears manipulating a tiny puppet version of himself, but this self-conscious display of the theatrical process is the opposite of magic. Surface used these techniques to good effect in The Second Shepard’s Play, but in that show she was illuminating our vague and misty past. Here she is animating a story already well known to us. You want to shout out “ignore the man behind the curtain,” but that’s a different children’s story.
Occasionally, the troupe’s sheer skill overcomes these obstacles. Hugh Nees is a fabulous Mad Hatter, and his dialogue with Alice is one of the best things in the show – perhaps because the magic upon which it relies is entirely verbal. (“Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see'”, he tells her.) The scene in which Alice confronts the King and Queen of Hearts is wonderfully effective. This is largely because Lise Bruneau captures the Queen’s ferocity, and Bill Largess embodies the King’s pomposity. (Largess also does a fine turn in drag as the Duchess). Tonya Beckham Ross is nicely terrified as the Jack of Hearts. And the croquet game between Alice and the Queen, using flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls is the best technical moment in the play (set designer Tony Cisek is responsible for these instruments). Later, a scene in which the Mock Turtle (Nees) tells Alice and the Griffon (Wilson) his life story – such as it is – is genuinely moving, a real moment of enchantment.
On the other hand, no amount of skill can overcome the dilemma of the Cheshire Cat, here played by Kyd. Marcus Kyd is a terrific actor, with many skills in his toolbox, but he has yet to acquire the ability to disappear onstage, leaving only a grin. He does his best, representing the smile with an accordion held in his outstretched hands. But it does not obviate the fact that we can still see him, and the other characters’ puzzlement (“I have seen a cat without a grin,” Alice observes, “but never a grin without a cat.”) seems incomprehensible.
Surface does not help herself by having characters deliver third-person narratives to explain those plot developments which she apparently believes cannot be shown by dialogue or action. Stepping outside the action helps remind us that we are watching a story. It would be better to make us think that we are in an enchantment.
So despite the fine performances and the wonderful technical support (Marianne Custer’s costumes are among the best I have seen this year, and Veronika Vorel’s sound is very good) Alice never really soars. Perhaps the very idea was doomed from the outset. I realize that Alice in Wonderland has been produced on stage, as well as in the movies, dozens of times in dozens of versions, but it does not matter. History is full of bad ideas, some produced at considerable expense. There is not a stage on earth which can compete with a child’s imagination. Some stories are meant to be seen in the theater, and some are meant to be seen in the mind’s eye, while gliding in the morning sun on the River Thames.
Running Time: One hour thirty minutes, with one intermission.
When: Wednesdays through Sundays until December 28. Wednesdays through Fridays are at 7; Saturday and Sunday performances at 3, with additional Saturday performances at 8. No shows on December 24 or 25. On December 26 and 27 the shows with be at 1 and 6 p.m.
Where: Round House Theatre in Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD.
Tickets: $20 for children and teenagers, $25-$60 for adults. Call 240.644.1100 or go to the website.