The darker side of Alice

Sometimes a rabbit hole isn’t just a rabbit hole, learns Alice.

Sometimes a rabbit hole isn’t just a rabbit hole, learns Alice.

Sometimes it’s a portal to a bizarre otherworld. In the case of Central Alberta Theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland, which opened on Thursday night, the nightmarish realm where Alice ends up is a cross between a surrealist film and the gothic quirkiness of a Tim Burton movie.

That’s not to say the production at the Memorial Centre is all black mascara and dominatrix boots — although these figure prominently on the persons of the Dormouse and Queen of Hearts, respectively.

This version of the play, adapted by Anne Coulter Martens and directed by Red Deer College theatre alumni Albertus Koett, actually contains quite a bit of humour that springs from the convoluted language and puns that originally made Lewis Carroll’s story so appealing to adults as well as children.

There are many ingenious and imaginative turns in Koett’s first feature-length production. There’s his use of primitive percussive music (presumably a tip of the hat to early surrealist cinema). There’s the clever echoing dialogue between Alice and the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, grainy black and white film sequences that show Alice with her sister, and the wonderful ways of making the Cheshire cat appear and disappear, including the use of shadow puppets.

The versatile set, by Patrick Beagan, has a The Nightmare Before Christmas quality that’s in keeping with Koett’s concept of creating an unsettling, Burton-like world.

And the inventive costumes, by Rik Van Dyke, are nothing short of incredible. The White Rabbit, played by Jillian Tallas, wears a get-up that perfectly captures the shape of a rabbit without having to resort to fuzzy ears. The same holds for the Mock Turtle, (played in saggy, overstretched sweater sleeves by Alexandra Taylor), the fur-coat wearing Cheshire Cat (Rivera Reese) and pig-tailed March Hare, played by Jordan Frankham.

The Mad Hatter (Greg Fiddler) is a multi-coloured vision in his patchwork coat, as are the acid-coloured flowers that are at once beautiful and sinister.

The only question mark was putting Alice into a saloon-girl red dress. Not only was this at odds with her necessary innocence, but it made her too much a part of this menacing world, instead of a stranger to it — but more on that later.

With so much going for this production, it’s too bad Thursday night’s performance suffered somewhat from slow pacing and a lack of energy.

Perhaps the dark dreaminess that Koett allows to seep into every scene created a general lethargy, made more painful by the long pauses many actors took between speaking their lines.

Drawn out exchanges worked fine in the conversation Alice has with the Caterpillar, but there was no need for them in the courtroom scene, or in any conversation Alice has with anyone else. Hopefully this will improve as the actors get more comfortable with the script.

Stand-outs are Steven Vanderheide and Andres Moreno as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. They struck exactly the right balance between creepy and funny and created actual characters, instead of relying on the play’s atmospherics to carry them along. And they also said their lines practically on top of each other, for great effect.

Reese is sly and enigmatic as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sutherland is a properly hen-pecked King of Hearts, Samantha Maddaugh is memorable as the Duchess’s pepper-obsessed Cook, as is Geoff Tagg, who plays an obnoxious Humpty Dumpty.

But the Queen of Hearts and Duchess (Anna Pinder and Brittany Alyssa Carl) need to find more quirk in their characters.

And Jessica Mayhew, as Alice, plays a pretty good ingenue, but needs to explore different facets of her heroine in order to make us care about her more, and buy into her predicament.

Then again, maybe it’s Koett who needs to decide whether Alice is of this strange, Goth world, or a rational outsider, as Carroll intended.

Carroll’s Alice was a regular little girl, who was needed to tether his nonsensical story to some kind of reality.

This version of Alice in Wonderland is definitely more geared to adults and teens than the Disney story, but isn’t too scary for most children seven and up.

Hopefully more families will attend, since the innovative production deserves more viewers than the couple hundred who filled only a quarter of the Memorial Centre on Thursday. Alice runs to June 21.

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