nytheatre.com review by Lynn Berg
February 3, 2010
Irondale Ensemble Project's production of alice...Alice...ALICE! at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene explores the company's impressive space to fantastic effect. If one comes with expectations to see the original Alice in Wonderland, however, it may subvert those expectations. The production left me with more questions than one might expect even from a trip to Wonderland.
If you've read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland you will recognize the characters and scenes in alice...Alice...ALICE! The White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the tea party, and the Queen of Hearts are all here, though sometimes unrecognizable. I didn't recognize one of my favorite parts of the original story, the Caterpillar, until I considered the show afterwards. That could be because the characters are rarely identified by name and sometimes their few distinguishing characteristics are confused. Presumably the company's intention is to disorient.
Despite its title, alice...Alice...ALICE! further disorients by not letting Alice become the protagonist or the audience's focal character. In Carroll's story, Alice becomes our proxy as the sane visitor to the insane Wonderland. In this production, though, we're quickly taken down the rabbit hole before we're given a relatable introduction to Alice. There is an opportunity for such an introduction before the show begins. When I attended the audience enjoyed some pleasant conversation with members of the company in the balcony cafe, but as one kid asked, "Where's Alice?" Even if the production made more of that introductory time, once in Wonderland Alice is often not directed to be the focus of scenes, blending in with the other characters and sometimes seemingly one of the patients in the asylum herself.
The books are perplexing, too, but Carroll first told the stories to the real-life ten-year-old Alice so their intention was presumably not just to mystify but to delight children. Irondale Ensemble does not seem concerned with that intention. The show is not for young children as it includes profanity and adult situations and themes. Adult ideas such as insanity, infanticide, substance abuse, and the capriciousness and dehumanizing nature of power are raised throughout and particularly in a climactic trial scene that is more Kafka than Carroll. With such substantial and promising matter I hoped the company's reasons to explore the Alice stories were more than just to mystify.
There are some wonderful effects, though. The shrinking and growing aspects of the original story are handled in enchanting ways by Randy Glickman's lighting design, Ken Rothchild's sets, and a video segment. I particularly liked the lighting on the door that seems to shrink and grow in relation to Alice. The projected video provided by The Means of Production expands the space in a pleasingly illusory way and then contracts it to a more mundane encounter in a psychiatrist's office.
The performers each get moments to shine, as well. Terry Greiss's Mock Turtle has a sad scene addressing the indignities of growing old. Scarlet Maressa Rivera's ukulele rendition of "Dream A Little Dream of Me" is lovely and further suggests that this is all a hallucination or dream. Michael-David Gordon also has an effectively creepy song as the Cheshire Cat, singing "Hey, little girl, I want to be your boyfriend." All the performers are musically talented and when they sing in the central space it highlights the wonderful acoustics of the Irondale Center.
The most successful occupation of alice...Alice...ALICE! is to showcase this magnificent space. The company has lovingly fixed and fitted much of the 19th century building to its purposes. It features a balcony used for a cafe and gallery overlooking the gymnasium-size central area and narrow stairways leading to strange attic spaces. The real fun of the show is to be led up and down the winding candlelit stairways from the balcony to the huge room of doors to a weird attic with the convex structure of the arch ceilings below and into another foreboding attic area and back again.
alice...Alice...ALICE! is an intriguing exploration of the physical space of the company but in the end I was left confused by what the Irondale Ensemble means to do with its source besides showcase its impressive space. There have been many adaptations of Carroll's stories and other companies have extrapolated adult themes from them. Unlike the big space, though, the big themes in this production only feel touched upon, then left largely unexplored. The company offers an informal discussion after the show that I, unfortunately, was unable to stay for. So I left with what I could glean from the production alone. Maybe alice...Alice...ALICE! is intended to be like the riddle in the tea party. It has no answer. In which case, it's up to the audience whether they agree or disagree with Alice that there are better things to do with one's time than present riddles with no answers.