When we think of parallel universes, so often we muse upon existences wherein Pauley Shore is president of the United States rather than Barack Obama (Bud-dy!). A reality wherein Elvis Presley, did NOT fake his own death, as in another speculated parallel existence, but moved away from the music industry all together to become a Vegan animal husbandry artist and an organic beekeeper. Ooh and say, what if cats had lips not to mention wore high heels in that invisible space under their ankle/heel (which IS it?) when they walk?!? What if the future was past, and the past was present, and future was present perfect, and everything meshed such that hippies stormed the Bastille and protested The Spanish Inquisition? (Surely they would have expected it!) Yes, these are all scenarios we associate with parallel universes. But very often do we forget to remember one of the first, most magical parallel universes (whether through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole) in the name of Wonderland and all the mind-bending realities witnessed by Alice herself!
And bend the brain this production will, from the frivolously fragrant fruit-loopy flavorsome wine procured for a mere donation in the lobby, to the oblong yet, oddly angled black and white chessboard set sporting the dizzying psychedelic rabbit hole projection on the screen upon its dorsal wall, one nearly senses they have already transcended and entered a most Serlingesque portal boasting decided Carrollian and Morissonesque undertones, overtones, and mid-tones alike! Even the production’s intro harps on this very notion as we are informed of any and all emergency exits in order to prevent us from being “trapped in Wonderland” in conjunction with being warned about an utter non-allowance of “phones or recording devices or—off with your head!”
Take the aforementioned elementary school teacherish admonishments one step further and reflect upon what might happen if a middle-aged school-marmish Alice suddenly returned to said place of wonder, to speak nothing of varying and sundry characters being tweaked into scenes they might not otherwise have ever appeared, or better yet, envisage Wonderland residents manifesting themselves in the real world and you have the Eclectic Company Theatre’s latest production, Curious Conversations: 8 Plays Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” & “Through the Looking Glass”. Produced by Rochelle Perry and Natasha Troop, and directed by Madelyne Heyman and Shane Labowitz, the production wends its way most peculiarly and incongruously through some very arresting and deliciously ridiculous speculation of what could have been, or may very well still be occurring in the eternal ether of Lewis Carroll’s theatrically inspired landscape in a journey unlike any other.
“I had this concept after I re-read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass on the Kindle and then I was thinking of getting back into playwrighting,” says producer/playwright Rochelle Perry, “because it had been several years, and I [thought] ‘Oh Alice in Wonderland. Everyone loves Alice in Wonderland … You know there’s already an audience for it and so [I figured] why not?” And, from it, quite a new and exciting version of Wonderland would be born!
“It’s a lot like the change of life only without the hot flashes,” a middle-aged Alice will exclaim as she unexpectedly enters the portal yet again in the midst of darning a sock in An Alice of a Certain Age by Nancy Cooper Frank. None of this is lost upon the caterpillar upon her arrival, “Madame, in your advanced state of decrepitude you’re not cut out for adventure,” to which Alice can only invariably reply, “Isn’t it time you turned into a butterfly?” The Duchess is merely off-put by Alice’s mundane sense of servitude as she demurs the half-darned sock Alice bandies about like an antebellum bride’s fan forestalling “the vaypuhs. “Will you kindly not wave that sock in my face while we are talking?”
The Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter just wonder where Alice has gone all these years, particularly in comparison to their latest charges, in The White Rose written by Gabi Rodriguez. “What is with these little girls today?” intones the Cheshire Cat. “‘I can’t drink that, this isn’t a speakeasy,’…and ‘I’m not going to eat that, I’m on a gluten free diet!’”
In Through the Looking Glass by Michael Maiello we are taken back in time from (mad hatterish) menopause, yet slightly forward from (tweedle) tweendom, as a traditionally blue-dressed, but dark-haired Alice questions her reflection in the form of the scarlet-draped, Red Queen in the mirror “When you dressed yourself this morning, didn’t you think of what I’d like to wear?” This hardly matters however as Alice can only crow about her impending wedding for which she prepares, along with anticipating the performance of the “trope of mimes we hired [now] doing vocal exercises in the garden.” The fortunate fellow groom in question?—a tax collector named Robert. “I thought he bred Bassett Hounds. You know how people look like their pets,” the mirrored image of the fiery queen scoffs as the two continue their jibes through vocalized chess moves. One reflection clearly is nervous that she is getting married and the other deflection, rattled that she isn’t yet is–and did, yet didn’t–have a say in the matter!
A slightly more agreeably discordant pair in the form of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum can be witnessed in Meet the Tweedles by Eric Duhon. Played in most hilarious and gender bending fashion as two assumed straight (or gay) men by two women in significantly rotund, and roly-poly, paunchy Polichinelle costumes, the two engage us in a rehearsal within a non-rehearsal as they “rehersify” within this full-out performance. It is a most disjointed near Vaudevillian/Shakespearian sketch reminiscent of the Smothers Brothers before they ever knew to idolize Abbott and Costello or Shields and Yarnell!?
In Hard Boiled Alice, by Suzie Heaton, the heretofore psychedelic window to the rear of the set is transformed into an ambient, art deco architecture clad arena as the din or rain punctures said portal’s proverbial pane. “It was one of those nights where you wouldn’t make a dog go out except it was afternoon,” exclaims private investigator Sam Spade (“Mr. Spade/hearts and Spade”—a reference is later made). “What was a 12-year-old girl doing in San Francisco,” he will later convey. As Alice makes her way into the mystery solving, man cave, she can only exclaim. “Why do you say out loud everything you are thinking?” (Really. And this is weird after the likes of her travels in Wonderland?) An impromptu showdown will ensue but in whose world: Hers as she beholds his or his as she beholds his through hers? All in all an exceedingly interesting, impromptu enmeshment of existences!
What if the caterpillar whose job it was to “confuse every human that stumbles down the rabbit whole” (whilst rendered buzzed and confused enough himself on hookah) and felt too much pressure with the hole thing–(See what I did there?)–required a rehabilitation program/support group in order to quell his most cigarettesque cravings?: Exactly what is explored in Toke by Marni L.B. Troop. All we understand is that the caterpillars or rather weak-willed wiggle worms cannot hold their smokage long enough to tide themselves over for less than a day, which may very well be a lifetime in caterpillar chronology! “It’s been 3 hours since my last smoke,” our star insect will intone. Another will lament, “I toke on the hookah because I’ve got 600 children and they’re all silk spinners!” Oh right, ‘cause we all know how that confounded silk chafes against the skin–and 600 kids…? Off to Jerry Springer with ya now!!!
Of Cabbages and Kings by Natasha Troop explores what transpires betwixt the walrus and the carpenter after the end of the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. Hint, it is morbid and depressing and the walrus really does not seem to like the carpenter much. Poor carpenter… Or is that the reverse? Hmmm… Quite depressing if not somewhat heady.
Speaking of heady, Quit While You’re a Head by Rochelle Perry, producer extraordinaire, explores the post armageddonous exisTENSE shrouded in all manner of reminiscence of death and destruction as exacted by the heartless, but not yet headless, Queen of Hearts herself! After having beheaded, yet freed them from the tonnage of her iron fist, everyWON in Wonderland (or is that Loserland?) only the Mad Hatter is left. The prime question posed: Can he persuade her to spare his life as he is the only one who can make hats for the headless in said wretch of a nation. (Though remaining characters in the forms of disembodied heads of The King, Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dee and The White Rabbit prattle and chatter away on the wall behind the Hatter himself as he muses out loud, “Speaking of where, what hats did they wear? And if they’d not hats to wear, they should have stopped by to see my wares!”: A genius and classic line. Though until reading the actual play, it want slightly over my head as an audience member.
Ideas behind most plays are fresh and original. The only concern I had with some of them is that they felt too chatty, at the same time significantly lacking in suspense and storyline. While it is evident that much of Carroll’s work centers around wordplay and the buoyancy found therein, you can have both. Moreover, in nonbook form, some such wordplay was somewhat lost on the audience.
While still a work in progress, Curious Conversations has to be one of the best productions I have seen at the Eclectic Company Theatre. Incumbent upon production value, set design, costuming and acting, to speak nothing of the British accents—Oh those amazing British accents, it was certainly the most colorful, plush, most high quality! Of note, Dai Kornberg as the eccentrically erudite caterpillar, Diana Vaden as the charmingly cunning Cheshire Cat, Eugenie Trow as the moderate and matriarchal play’s host and introductress along with poetic narrator of The Walrus and the Carpenter, Adrienne Pearson as the quirky Mad Hatter, JC Henning and Nicolette Shutty as respectively quirky and earnest old and young Alices, Melanie Cruz and Marilee Moen as the bumbling Dee and Dum brothers portrayed as sisters, Tim Polzin as the candid, cool customerish Sam Spade, Nathalie Blossom as the imposing and incendiary Red Queen, and Abby Gershuny as the boldly beatific Queen of Hearts! Costumes by Tsebahat Fiseha and Beck Van Cleve are some of the best I’ve ever seen and the set designed by Natasha Troop is positively out of this world!
Curious Conversations: 8 Plays Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” & “Through the Looking Glass” runs through June 28th at The Eclectic Company Theatre.
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