Alice in Wonderland – I Get What I Like and I Like What I Get
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
*This is The Bad Oracle’s “staff pass” disclosure: someone involved in this production is a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. The individual did not write or participate in writing this review. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer(s), which is why it is here.
Watching The Manhattan Project’s version of Alice in Wonderland, now up by The Collaborative at Fells Point Corner Theatre, a weird thought occurred to me: Is this story for children? Is it really? The thing with Alice is that she’s the only child in Wonderland (okay, save one infant, but we all know how that turns out) and Wonderland is a world that is decidedly adult. In fact, the creation, here, almost seems like a looking-glass image of the real adult landscape, one that is vast, confusing, and as dark as it is fascinating in the eyes of children. Sex, politics, drugs, strange power hierarchies, veiled words that sound like riddles – all of those things are very present in both the real world and in Wonderland. Adults are always doing and saying things that make no sense, barking at kids directions without context, saying things between each other with their eyes and refusing to explain. That being said, it doesn’t really seem like Alice should be in Wonderland at all, it’s less a child’s fantasy than an adult’s nightmare. But one of the thrills of the story is that real danger Alice (Sarah Burton) might be in, and the truly awesome way she handles herself when presented with it. Alice is annoying, she’s rude, she’s bratty, and she’s a survivor. How fucking great is that?
This Alice is made up of an ensemble cast of six who play all 32 parts and oh, what a glorious ensemble it is! Some casts work, some casts don’t, and some casts seem like they are part of one living, breathing, delightful organism. This is most definitely the latter. As is the directive with The Manhattan Project, many of the stage directions had to be devised, which means the cast and director had to work together to make them up. I could feel the bravery of the risk taking, not to mention the trust, shooting through these sequences, which could not have been easy to manage. Not only that, but the cast builds together and backs off to let individuals take stage for their standout characters. Pacing is a fast 80 minutes but never seems clipped, the performers anticipate each other without walking over one another.
Holly Gibbs is as majestic and ominous as the Red Queen as she is hilariously funny as the White Queen, fussing and fluttering with her shawl like a true Southern Belle. She also does a version of a French mouse which has the exact French accent that a mouse would have, if you follow me there (fuuuck is the caucus race in general one of the funniest things I have ever seen staged, talk about perfect timing!). I honestly feel like Gibbs is the one to watch in terms of comedy in Baltimore, she is consistently right on the money, so fucking funny, luminescent, even. Sarah Burton rapidly became my definitive Alice, she’s just living through the character, and her movement, from her gorge drop down the hole, to her vocal inflection (“That was piggy of me”) is so spot-on I’m going to have trouble envisioning anyone else in the role, ever, so kudos to her.
Chris Cotterman, a fixture at BSF making his debut with The Collaborative, has awesome range, as is apparent as he goes from an unsettling Lewis Carroll to a Moranis-inspired Humpty Dumpty. Gabe Fremuth hits The Mad Hatter exactly (not too wild, with whiplash timing and an appraising, almost sinister affect – he is mad, after all) – Freumth has this really deadpan face which works well in this environment. The beautiful Barbara Hauck is pigtailed perfect, especially as the Cheshire Cat, oozing around while not quite keeping track of her face. Nick Fruit turns in a fabulous caterpillar with a pencil-thin mustache and an evening gown, his eyes wide and offended, but it is in one of his later moments, as The Knight, that he really comes forward. This is a long, complex scene, laced with innuendo [there is some pointedly uncomfortable suggestion that Carroll may have been a child molester, but this is made far from explicit, which is the right way to go in my opinion, since it may be long suspected but never proven] but Fruit makes it fly, combining machismo with the odd vulnerability that defines toxic masculinity, a pretty heavy theme for a children’s story (is it).
I want to dig deep on the technicality of this show for a minute, because, as with any version of Alice, the setting is of paramount importance, and it’s there that Kel Millionie, both as a director AND a set/lighting designer, absolutely shines. His genius, which I first intuited in his directorial debut at Loyola this past winter with Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (we didn’t review it, but I saw it) is that he understands minimalism better than anyone working on our scene right now. See, Millionie doesn’t make minimalism spare, he makes it so specific that it flips the script and appears lush. To do this is exhausting, because everything, every single piece, artifact, cup, door, has to be thought of and considered. Just look at this fucking set. Look at it. Every object present, every paint color, every shaft of light, every texture, has been considered. It’s breathtaking. Millionie brings this same perspective in as a director, too, and, not only that, he explores a three dimensional stage. He works with air, he is cognizant of height. Alice’s fall to the bottom is actually a ladder to the top. Doors open onto Humpty Dumpty’s lofty perch. The Cheshire Cat materializes from thin air. It’s disorienting. It’s so fucking sophisticated I could scream. It’s perfect.
The rest of the technical elements follow this “just enough and no further” mandate to the hilt. Sound design from Chris Flint is immersive and environmental, never distracting. Costumes by Ann Turiano are by turns goofy (the White Rabbit!), and opulent (The Red Queen, duh). And properties by Mia Florentino are just charming, that little mouse, I could die.
BOTTOM LINE: Alice in Wonderland, from The Collaborative by way of Fells Point Corner Theatre, is the type of mature work that is going to elevate the Baltimore theater scene, and I could not be more excited about that fact. This is the very best of small theater, taking risks while emphasizing a polished, sophisticated product. The performances are locked in, the ensemble and directorial work breathtakingly done, the technical elements shockingly inventive. It’s work like this that heralds a new era. For a theater nerd like me, it’s life.
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