by Lynn on December 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. produced by Bad Hats Theatre, co-produced with Soulpepper Theatre, until Jan. 7

Adapted by Fiona Sauder

Directed by Sue Miner

Musical director, Rachel O’Brien

Co-composed by Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko

Choreographed by Cameron Carver

Lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell

Costume Designer, Ming Wong

Sound systems designer, Andres Castillo Smith

Cast: Tess Benger

Landon Doak

Colleen Furlan

Jessica Gallant

Aisha Jarvis

Breton Lalama

Richard Lam

Matt Pilipiak

Fiona Sauder

Vanessa Sears

Creative, pointed of our world and embracing of difference.

NOTE: This production was supposed to play last year but the pandemic got in the way. So the resourceful, tenacious Bad Hats Theatre folk and Soulpepper streamed it under strict, safe COVID protocols. It was a fascinating endeavor. But as I wrote then, I found it interesting (puzzling??) that Lewis Carroll’s name is not mentioned anywhere in the program. Fiona Sauder is noted as the ‘adaptor’ but not mentioned is the source material she adapted. Curious. The Program title only lists “Bad Hats’ Alice in Wonderland. 

Perhaps it’s because Lewis Carroll never wrote something called Alice in Wonderland. He in fact wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Is this hair-splitting, or what?  OK, I’m giving credit below where it’s due.

The Story. Lewis Carrol’s beloved, whimsical classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted and created for our contemporary times by Fiona Sauder, the Artistic Director of Bad Hats Theatre. The result is Alice in Wonderland, a family musical, co-presented by Bad Hats Theatre and Soulpepper.

The whimsy is still there but it also reflects many of the changes in our world that have happened over the time of the pandemic, before and after; I’m thinking of Black Lives Matter and gender fluidity and how one acknowledges that.

In this version, Alice is a precocious young girl who is endlessly curious and inquisitive. She asks questions about everything in her class of young kids. Her teacher, Mr. C has to remind her that that particular day they are only focusing on answers, not questions. Alice is still not satisfied and when she persists in asking more questions, Mr. C moves Alice’s desk  away from the other kids so she won’t be so disruptive. But we get the measure of Alice’s imagination and curiosity when she looks out the window and sees clouds and imagines they look like animals.  Which leads her to imagine a rabbit which then sends her down the rabbit hole and into a different world.

The Production. Alice in Wonderland is basically the same story as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, once we get into Wonderland. We have the Mad Rabbit who is always late, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. But in this version Alice’s real life in her class with her school friends melds into her imagined adventures in Wonderland. For example, Mr. C (Matt Pilipiak is wonderful)  is the harried teacher trying to keep order especially with Alice (Tess Benger). He becomes the White Rabbit who is late. Alice’s classmates become other characters. Ruby, the smartest, most eager kid in the class becomes the confident, imperious Red Queen (Vanessa Sears).

The character of the Cheshire Cat (Aisha Jarvis) seems to have been roaming in that classroom before Alice transitioned—so maybe the cat was the class pet? Alice still has to negotiate Wonderland: to find her way along eight squares and then earn the right to be the Queen.  She is coached along the way of the many riddles by Tweedle Dum (Landon Doak) and Tweedle Dee (Fiona Sauder).

And it’s a musical.  This company is so gifted with imagination and talent.  Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko co-composed the show and it’s full of wit, an intoxicating score and lyrics that reflect the upheaval in this Wonderland, as well as in the real world. And Fiona Sauder’s adaptation also reflects that juxtaposition between both worlds.

The Red Queen as played fearlessly by Vanessa Sears, instills the Red Queen with whole lot of confidence. At one point the Red Queen is instructing Alice on the rules and how to be a Queen.

So she sings about taking charge:

“So you think you wanna be a Queen…

You gotta work the system, play within it

Words of wisdom work within em’

Wait to finish, don’t diminish

You’ll need a whole lot of nerve….

Take what you earn, don’t brake and don’t burn

They want service…

From fist’ll just make em  nervous

When they get nervous they wanna hurt us

Take back our space like we don’t deserve trust.

Gotta be cool. Gotta be cool. These are the Queen’s rules.”

The lyrics initially speak to being confident but then they get more pointed and seem to be subtly referring to something deeper—that reference to “When they get nervous they wanna hurt us, take back our space like we don’t deserve trust” is going into a whole deeper area reflected by this Queen.

Vanessa Sears is a powerhouse singer/actress. She is also Black. I think those lyrics are referencing Black Lives Matter and the issues that have been brought up in the past few years. Taking their place, their space and to be seen. Powerful.

The Red Queen says that Alice can be a Queen. But the way that Vanessa Sears plays the Red Queen is full of confidence, maturity and wisdom of a certain world that Alice doesn’t know about.

Tess Benger plays Alice as innocent, precocious and experiences a different world from this particular Red Queen. I loved the juxtaposition. But Tess Benger also illuminates Alice’s resolve, her perception, kindness, thoughtful tenacity and a young wisdom. Alice sees two clocks in her classroom that indicate different times, and she wants to know why they are different and which one should she trust for the actual time. Her curiosity is engaging and charming.

At another point in the show, there is a fuzzy Caterpillar (a confident, engaging performance by Breton Lalama) that envelopes itself in a cape-like cocoon (kudos to costume designer, Ming Wong). A question is asked: “what happens to the caterpillar?” And the answer is: “They became a butterfly.” Breton Lalama uses the pronouns he/they.  The image of the caterpillar that develops into a butterfly is a beautiful image for gender fluidity, I think.

Writer Fiona Sauder goes deeper into the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland to reflect the changing world we all live in now. I think that’s terrific.

Sue Miner has directed this with an intoxicating whimsy and a keen eye for detail. Desks are moved and frames are used to change scenes and reflect a reflective world. To suggest that Alice is going down the rabbit hole, Alice is surrounded by the moveable desks of the classroom that her friends move around her, suggesting movement downward. To suggest Alice is growing she stands on a desk and various frames are arranged in such a way to suggest Alice is larger in size. Terrific images. Sue Miner has directed a production that is wonderfully detailed, madcap, buoyant, vibrant and very inventive.

This is a very musical company. At various times actors in costume play the music at the piano, changing without a hesitation from one actor to another as they scurry off to change into another costume. Scene and costume changes are fluid.  

This is a dandy production of Alice in Wonderland from Bad Hats that reflects our changing world, and will appeal to families with teenagers. I feel this is too sophisticated and whimsical a production for the younger kid. The philosophical questions the production asks: who are we? What will become of us? What do you want to be? are questions that would better appeal to a teen than a younger kid.

Co-produced by Bad Hats Theatre and Soulpepper

Plays until January 7, 2022.

Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)

A Printed Programme is Provided.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jane Sauder January 11, 2023 at 8:41 pm

Loved this play and would love to receive notifications of future performances


2 Lynn January 11, 2023 at 10:01 pm

Any relation to the talented Miss Fiona Sauder? She could tell you. Or please keep reading my blog.
All the best,
Lynn Slotkin