by Lynn on May 24, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Lewis Carroll
Adapted for the stage by Peter Hinton
Directed by Peter Hinton
Music by Allen Cole
Choreographed by Denise Clarke
Set by Eo Sharpe
Costumes by William Schmuck
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Projections by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson
Sound by John Lott
Flying by Foy
Cast: Guy Bannerman
Neil Barclay
Jahlen Barnes
Donna Belleville
Kyle Blair
Andrew Broderick
Starr Domingue
Elodie Gillett
Patty Jamieson
Emily Lukasik
Natasha Mumba
Marcus Nance
Moya O’Connell
Jennifer Phipps
Tara Rosling
Ben Sanders
Kiera Sangster
Graeme Somerville
Jonathan Tan
Jacqueline Thair
Jay Turvey
Kelly Wong

The projections and costumes are dazzling at the expense of the story and just about everything else.

The Story. Alice fell down the rabbit hole and entered a dazzling world of talking animals, a smiling Cheshire cat, a glowing Caterpillar, a White Rabbit concerned with time and being late, a Queen of Hearts who was flirty, irritable and impatient and all manner of fantastical, silly images.

The Production. Director/adapter Peter Hinton has gone back to the beginning of how the story of Alice in Wonderland came to be when one day Alice Liddell (aged 10-years-old) and her two siblings and their mother, among others, took a boat ride with Charles Dodgson, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. To amuse the girls Dodgson fashioned a fantastic story of a little girl named Alice (Tara Rosling) who saw a White Rabbit with a watch and followed it down a rabbit hole and thus became the adventure. When Alice told Dodgson to write it all down he coined the pen name Lewis Carroll and published this beloved book in 1865.

The curtain rises very slowly so the lush, languid world of Oxford on a lovely day by the river is revealed gradually. The projections on the back of the stage by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson are remarkable. The river appears before us, smooth as glass. A dragon fly flips in the water, pooling it. The vegetation is deep green with plants and trees, flowers and all manner of life. When the curtain is fully up, a large boat ‘sails’ into view in front of the projections as if sailing on the water. The boat carries Charles Dodgson (a kindly Graeme Somerville), two of the Liddell sisters, their mother etc. Alice approaches the boat from stage right to meet the boat centre stage, where she gets in.

This poses a problem from the beginning. There are so many dazzling images that director Peter Hinton has not allowed the audience to take them all in before their attention is distracted by Alice pulling our focus and getting into the boat. While the curtain is deliberately slow to rise, the whole vision cannot be ‘digested’ just by the time the curtain is at the top.

In Hinton’s vision, various characters in Alice’s and Dodgson’s ‘real’ life then take on the persona of characters in the story’s fantasy life. For example the butler of the Dean of the college is always fretting about the time and frequently consults his pocket watch. He will morph into the White Rabbit in the fantasy land who is tall, dressed in a white rabbit ‘outfit’ and always consults his pocket watch, fretting he is late for an appointment. Mrs. Liddell will morph into the grumpy but glamorous Queen of Hearts—played with delicious glee by Moya O’Connell. Alice’s aged grandmother in a wheelchair, will appear in a lively projection above the stage as the Cheshire Cat complete with whiskers. Jennifer Phipps plays this grinning creature with the greatest array of flashing eye expressions and the most mysterious of conversations with Alice.

William Schmuck’s costumes are as eye-grabbing as the projections. They are full of wit, imagination, a sense of whimsy and fit beautifully into a world that is upside down. The Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle are eye-popping. The problem is that there is so much grabbing of the audience’s attention one does not know where to look to focus on anything before the next distraction comes. The whole thing is an excess of riches and one gets tired quickly of excess—truly. What is lost is the actual story.

Hinton flips back and forth from the telling of the story in the boat to Wonderland that rather than be seamless in the telling, it’s jarring.

There are interesting images that are quite memorable: a projection of a gigantic Alice coming forward looking at the obviously small rabbit hole entrance, so that all we see eventually is her gigantic eye as she peers in. To suggest Alice is getting smaller in that magical world, the projections behind her are enlarged, thus giving the sense that she is getting smaller. When it’s suggested she is getting larger, the projections ‘move’ backward and seem to get smaller.

As Alice, Tara Rosling is a curious, stubborn, forthright person, as frighteningly confident as any ten-year-old child could be. It’s a lovely performance.

Comment. There is no question that director Peter Hinton digs deep to give the audience the background of the story and its execution. But as well intentioned as this production is to show the imagination and silliness of the story, there is so much of the effects and costumes etc. that bombards us that it’s hard to see anything clearly except the dazzle.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: May 14, 2016.
Closes: October 16, 2016.
Cast: 22; 10 men, 12 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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