Stage Door Review

Alice in Wonderland

Saturday, April 10, 2021

✭✭

by Fiona Sauder, with music by Landon Doak & Victor Pokinko directed by Sue Miner

Bad Hats Theatre, presented by Soulpepper, Toronto

streaming April 3-18 2021

Caterpillar: The question is, ’Who are you?'

The two Alice novels of Lewis Carroll (1832-98) – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) – are so well loved that theatre people, despite persistent failure, keep trying to adapt them to the stage. The Stratford Festival had acclaimed playwright James Reaney adapt Through the Looking-Glass in 1994 (revived in 2014) which proved to be quite a handsome but otherwise quite boring production. The Shaw Festival had Peter Hinton adapt Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2016 which likewise held only visual rather than dramatic interest.

The key difficulties in adapting the Alice books to the stage is that both are nonsense novels, i.e. both are deliberately designed not to follow any sort of logic, and both are episodic and thus devoid of dramatic conflict. The humour in reading a nonsense novel is that it so clearly contrasts with the type of improving literature young Victorians were supposed to read. We moderns don’t have the same highly structured society supposedly based on logic and propriety to contradict. It is because both Reaney and Hinton were so utterly faithful to their texts that both adaptations failed utterly on stage. The best stage adaptation so far of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is Christopher Wheedon’s ballet (2011), which freed of the text, could reimagine the scenario solely in terms of movement.

Now Fiona Sauder, Artistic Director of Bad Hats Theatre, has created her version of Alice in Wonderland that combines elements of both Alice books into one 90-minute show. Sauder and Bad Hats had enormous success with their Peter Pan (2017), so it is sad to report that its Alice is dogged by a sense of deliberateness that was so excitingly absent from its far more playful Peter Pan.

Sauder places the story within a rather long-winded frame that has two functions. First, it relocates the action firmly in Canada of the present, and second, it endeavours, contrary to the point of the novels, to infuse some notion of purpose into what are otherwise a series of nonsensical episodes.

The show begins with a rowdy class of seven students awaiting the late arrival of its teacher Mr. Charles (Matt Pilipiak). Charles has set the class an assignment where they have to write a series of short essays about their identity. Everyone has finished theirs except for Alice (Tess Benger), who has not figured out how to answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Charles begins the session with math and asks a series a questions nearly all involving trains arriving late at their destination

It’s clear that Ruby (Vanessa Sears), the class keener and chess champion of the school, is the smartest, most eager student in the class. But Tess, who is characterized by insatiable curiosity, keeps asking Charles questions about why the trains are late, whether it has something to do with trains themselves and how can people plan their travelling if this is so.     

Alice’s incessant questions so infuriate Charles that he makes her sit apart from the students to work on her unfinished essay. He tells her not to look out the window, which she cannot help but do, and there she sees clouds changing from one fanciful form into another.

The window, rather than a rabbit hole or a looking-glass, provides Sauder’s Alice with her portal into Wonderland. Here Sauder uses a technique, timeworn since the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), where the everyday people of Alice’s classroom become the fantastic characters of Wonderland. The cat that used to hang around the classroom becomes the Cheshire Cat (Jonathan Tan). Tod and Todd, who dress in matching outfits. become Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Ruby, the school chess champion, becomes the Red Queen. And the delayed Mr. Charles becomes the time-obsessed White Rabbit.

The show would have been much simpler had Sauder chosen to adapt only one of the Alice books. In trying to combine aspects of both she has just make the story more confusing. Thus the “Red Queen” is somehow both the playing card the Queen of Hearts and the chess piece the Red Queen. Sauder shows us the Red Queen against a background of the cast wearing placards as different playing cards while the Queen shows Alice that the landscape resembles a huge chess board. Sauder gives us both the Queen running as fast as she can from Looking-Glass and the trial of the stolen tarts from Wonderland. Each Alice book focusses on a specific game but mixing the two simply moves the imagery from fun and nonsensical to frustrating and confusing. 

Sauder’s main structure is Alice’s progress from pawn to queen derives from Looking-Glass which Sauder construes as Alice’s coming to understand her identity. Yet, Sauder also wants to keep the best-known aspects of Wonderland such as the the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar (Jacob Macinnis), the Mad Hatter (Landon Doak) and the final trial. The great trouble is that we meet all these characters with famous names without ever seeing them say the words or enact the deeds that make them famous.

All that recalls the source text is the White Rabbit checking his pocket watch and worrying he is late. Otherwise, Sauder gives us a Cheshire Cat without a grin or ability to disappear, a Caterpillar without a hookah, a Mad Hatter’s tea party without a Dormouse and where nobody changes seats and trial about missing tarts without the Knave of Hearts. By trying to include elements from both Alice books, Sauder does not give us a clear idea of either.

One might also note that by trying to turn the episodes in the Alice books into a tale of self-actualization, Sauder clearly goes contrary to the entire point of nonsense novels by attempting to give them meaning.

Luckily, the meaning Sauder imposes on the Alice books works contrary to the current determinist trend of identity politics. Sauder emphasizes instead through the advice the Caterpillar has for Alice that what is most important in life is to embrace change. Sauder and director Sue Miner, with the help of clever costuming by Ming Wong, reinforce this message by having the Caterpillar surround themself in a gossamer cocoon and then emerge as a butterfly in what is likely the most powerful scene in the show.

Bad Hats refers to Alice in Wonderland as “filmed family musical”. This phrase is  bit truer than Bad Hats might like it to be. The show comes across as a filmed theatrical presentation rather than a theatrical presentation in which filming is integral to the show’s impact. Of filmed Canadian plays the monologues of the series 21 Black Futures provide the best examples so far of the latter. In Bad Hats’s Alice video is used to great effect when Alice grows or shrinks or when stream producer Robert Metcalfe cuts to an overhead camera to give us a view, say, of the tabletop where the Mad Hatter and Marsh Hare (Fiona Sauder) are sitting.

Otherwise, Bad Hats focusses as it did in Peter Pan, to making much from minimal means. Eight plexiglass screens with the occasional free-standing blackboard for all the multifarious sets needed in the phantasmagoric Wonderland – from mirrors to walls of houses to trellises. On the one hand it is wonderful to see an Alice book adapted, unlike those of Stratford or Shaw, without a heavy dependence on production values. On the other hand, the imaginative theatricality of Bad Hats’s production is muted by its being filmed.

If we were in the theatre watching the show, the use of these screens would have great impact since the stage space and what it signifies would metamorphose before our eyes. We would directed perceive the many changes of depth and shape since we would be part of the space where these changes were happening.

When filmed, however, we are the same distance from the flat monitor of whatever device we are using. We thus look on these theatrical changes objectively rather than experientially and the magic of the highly theatrical staging is lost. Since such theatricality is a signature aspect of Bad Hats’s technique, merely filming the show, rather than more fully rethinking the show for film, causes the production to lose one of its key attractions.

Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko have written lively but unmemorable songs for the show in a variety of modes from pseudo-Sondheim to neo-folk, the latter of which are the most successful. The impressionist music for the garden of flowers is especially pleasing. Doak and Pokinko reserve the most challenging music for the Red Queen, but Vanessa Sears tosses her songs off with ease. Sensitive and high-voiced Tess Benger makes a convincingly inquisitive school-aged youngster. All the rest of the versatile cast both sing and play various instruments with Jonathan Tan and Matt Pilipiak as the main pianists.

While it is clear that director Sue Miner wants us to concentrate on Alice’s adventures, it would be good if she did not have lighting designer Logan Raju Cracknell keep the actor/musicians so much in the dark since, as in Peter Pan, Bad Hats gives us a multi-talented ensemble who work together at every moment to tell their story.

Bad Hats’s Alice in Wonderland will work best for those who don’t really know Carroll’s Alice novels well, since Sauder has really refashioned a completely different story with a completely different non-satirical aesthetic out of just a few key incidents and names. Since Bad Hats’s Alice in Wonderland depends so much more on Through the Looking-Glass than on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one wonders whether Sauder should have simply focussed on Looking-Glass which might have allowed her to develop the character found there to a fuller extent.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Tess Benger as Alice and ensemble; Matt Pillipiak as the White Rabbit, Tess Benger as Alice, Vanessa Sears as the Red Queen and Jacob Macinnis as “9”; Landon Doak as the Mad Hatter, Tess Benger as Alice and Fiona Sauder as the March Hare. © 2021 John Holosko & Robert Metcalfe.

To view Alice in Wonderland visit badhatstheatre.com.