Mushroom In Her Hands
nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
April 29, 2005
There seems to be a universal fascination with the mystery surrounding British author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), much better known as Lewis Carroll, the man who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Were these bedtime stories meant to entertain ten-year-old Alice Liddell, the source of his inspiration, or to seduce her? Did he write them to purge his own personal demons on the page or to make scathing allegorical comment about the state of the British Empire under Queen Victoria? Dodgson always claimed the stories were “just nonsense.” Freud, Jung, and a host of other academics insisted otherwise.
Dodgson had a penchant for sketching and photographing semi-nude little girls, and, in the company of adults, is purported to have had a terrible stammer that earned him the cruel nickname “Dodo”—most unfortunate given that he was a math teacher/lecturer and an ordained minister. He was very close to the Liddell family, particularly Alice, when in 1863 some publicly undisclosed event took place that estranged Dodgson from the Liddells almost until the end of his days when he finally made peace with Alice and her mother. The pages detailing his years in the family’s company were ripped from his well-kept journal by Dodgson himself, and more information was later removed by the nephew who inherited his estate. The Liddell family refused to publish any of his letters to them. Dodgson never took a wife, although he apparently maintained long friendships with “mature” women. A hundred years after his death, allusions that he was a pedophile (albeit probably a celibate one) persist while the mystique around him continues to grow.
In her play Mushroom In Her Hands, produced by the Milk Can Theatre Company, playwright Anne Phelan does her own decidedly adult but wistful take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, wherein Dodgson actually becomes a character—many characters, in fact, leading right back to the one—as a different kind of Alice dream-tumbles down her rabbit hole into the quagmire of self-awareness. Initially set in 1866 Oxford, England, the play starts with (according to the program) 14-year-old Alice posing restlessly for Dodgson behind his camera. She giggles, flirts, and teases alluringly, wonders aloud about the man she’ll marry someday, then cruelly goads Dodgson about his stammer in front of adults, most especially her mother. Throughout—and always remaining at arm’s length—Dodgson is sad, patient, indulgent and calmly acknowledges the inevitability of Alice’s growing up. Calm, that is, until she matter-of-factly suggests he ask her father for her hand in marriage. So, at its heart, this story is of a doomed non-romance and love mutually unrequited.
When Alice finally reaches Wonderland, some classic characters are there to greet her and guide—or mislead—her along the path. We have the Mouse, a French “itinerant ballet teacher” who instructs Alice in a water ballet; the timid, deferential Dodo/Dodgson who, nonetheless, cannot take his eyes off Alice; Cedric Caterpillar-about-to-be -Butterfly/Dodgson, less timid than Dodo but just as terrified of his certifiably mad, hyper-carnivorous father (in this case, Father William, as in the parody poem “You are old, Father William, the young man said…”) and just as aroused by Alice. He goads her into taking a toke from his hookah pipe, which takes her on to the next level, where she meets Mrs. Hargreaves (who turns out to be Alice as an adult), a sad, lonely woman sitting on an empty nest who warns a befuddled Alice to protect her eggs at all cost. Act One closes with Alice meeting the Frog Footman, a self-styled “villain” and very inept seducer/rapist, who turns squeamish when Alice asks him if he intends to take away her eggs. Villain he may be, he exclaims scandalized, but even HE would not be so reprehensible as to discuss biology with a lady.
Act Two brings Alice face-to-face with the Duchess, a theatrical, self-consumed harpy so enthralled with her own delusions of grandeur and martyrdom that she can’t be bothered with her baby son Pig, whom the drunken Cook is trying (unsuccessfully) to drown and chop up in a stew pot. Meanwhile, the Cheshire Cat/Dodgson pops his masked smile in and out of the action with some frequency. Alice’s attempts to save and nurture Pig (who is about ten years older in the next scene) lead her only to realize that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree and that he’s every bit as horrible as his mother. Pig insists, in literally porcine fashion, that Alice is really nothing but breeding stock and a commodity that her beloved father can bid and bargain with. Horrified, Alice takes some consolation in posing for the photographs that the unabashedly sensual, seductive Cheshire Cat/Dodgson takes of her. But even these moments are tainted for both of them as she changes from schoolgirl flats to high heels. Alice’s final tour of Wonderland is the mad tea party, wherein the Mad Hatter/Dodgson, the March Hare, and the Dormouse subject her to nothing less than gang rape.
In some terrific casting, four actors perform Mushroom In Her Hands. The very beautiful, winsome Jessi Gotta is always Alice; Reed Prescott plays Charles Dodgson and all his manifestations; Carolyn McDermott and Daryl Lathon do multiple duty as the various denizens of Wonderland. I felt in the initial “real time” exchanges between Alice and Dodgson that Gotta was playing more of a bratty nine- or ten-year-old rather than a coquettish 14-year-old, who by now, especially in the Victorian era, is certainly being groomed for a suitable marriage. But her tantrums and occasional bouts of infantilism are appropriate to a dream state and the emotional evolution of her journey through Wonderland. She has a great moment with a line ripped off from The Wizard of Oz, and Gotta looks great in a white blouse that she is innocently about to pop out of.
Reed Prescott’s Dodgson is very much the tragic romantic hero—part Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, not the cartoon cat), part Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. It’s interesting to note that the real Charles Dodgson was himself, for the era, considered an extraordinarily handsome man, and Prescott has movie star good looks. This might have been more distracting had Prescott not given a performance of some depth. Gorgeous and affectionate, but also reserved and elusive, it makes sense in this play’s context that he could make Alice discover her hormones. Each time we encounter him in Wonderland, he grows more aggressively sexual, right up to becoming the Mad Hatter and leading the gang rape.
Carolyn McDermott plays the Mouse, Mrs. Hargreaves (older Alice), Cook, and the traumatized-into-madness March Hare. I didn’t care much for the Mouse and water ballet scenes as they seemed to go on and on and on (but then, alas, so do some dreams), but McDermott does make an interesting, soul-weary older Alice, and her Cook’s song-and-dance number with the Duchess is an absolute hoot.
The performer who truly shines is Daryl Lathon, stealing the show in just about every scene he’s in. He’s particularly delightful as the “villain” Frog Footman who tries to terrify/seduce Alice into submission with impromptu violent mini-plays with paper-doll stick puppets he pulls out of an always-handy coffer, and seems quite hurt when Alice remains oblivious to his intent. His Duchess is a combination of Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Quentin Tarantino meeting Gilbert and Sullivan. I was almost dismayed at the drop of the energy level when in the final scenes he plays the mopey, drowsy Dormouse.
I wasn’t crazy about the technical staging of Mushroom In Her Hands. There are some admirable artistic ideas about how to present the more surreal moments of Alice’s journey through the use of computerized projection and image collages, I’m just not sure how well in this instance they worked. Perhaps it was the fact that where I ended up sitting didn’t have the best view, but it took me a moment or two to catch on that I should be looking at the images changing on the stage left wall. And even as the images emerged (and it seemed to take a long time), I felt what I was seeing was more clever effect than actually a part of the play. In fact, my biggest criticism would be the clunkiness of the transitions and set changes, which are very distracting and interrupt the flow of events that, given the nature of the story, should be seamless. It also would have helped if in Alice’s lost and alone moments, Gotta had been given a little more to do than run circles around the set blocks, wring her hands and cry. And I wish the Cheshire Cat’s appearances could be handled more subtly than popping in and out from behind the upstage curtain.
But I really liked the costuming by Marija Djorjevic, especially the Duchess’s and March Hare’s outfits, and the musical number (original music by Nick Moore) with the Duchess and the Cook is very, very entertaining and the highlight of the show. The text sounds true and faithful to Lewis Carroll’s story and style, and the actors carry it off beautifully. I was a bit confused by the final real-time moments between Alice and Dodgson and wished that playwright Phelan had taken a few more risks in Wonderland. But for the most part it’s a lovely, speculative story that has a lot of potential to make really great theatre as long as it focuses on what kind of story it wants to be. The Milk Can Theatre Company’s production gives it a good try but this time doesn’t quite make the mark.