Review: Alice in Wonderland

by Lynn on January 1, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. Soulpepper presents Bad Hats Theatre’s production. Playing until Jan. 7, 2024.

www.soulpepper.ca

Written by Fiona Sauder

(with a tip of the hat to the original story of “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll)

Music by Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko

Directed by Sue Miner

Musical director, Jonathan Corkal-Astorga

Co-composed by Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko

Original choreography by Cameron Carver

Costume Designer, Ming Wong

Lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell

Sound systems designer, Andres Castillo Smith

Cast: Tess Benger

Shakura Dickson

Landon Doak

Jessica Gallant

Aisha Jarvis

Ben Page

Matt Pilipiak

Fiona Sauder

Hanseul Yi

Glorious!  Embracing of difference, championing curiosity and the power of asking questions.

NOTE: This is a remount of the Bad Hats Theatre’s production from last year with a few cast changes. Such a vibrant, lively, thoughtful production requires another visit to recharge one’s batteries and see goodness in the world of this play.

The Story. Writer Fiona Sauder has used Lewis Carrol’s beloved, whimsical classic Alice in Wonderland  as an outline for her adaptation and created a version for our contemporary times. 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; I’m thinking of gender fluidity and how one acknowledges that, taking space, being in charge and being seen, as well as thinking for oneself and not depending on others for an opinion.   

In Fiona Sauder’s 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 harried teacher, Mr. Charles 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. Charles 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 with a pocket watch which then sends her down the rabbit hole and into a different world.

The Production.  It starts with a group of rambunctious kids coming to class, moving on their desks, chairs, and other stuff. Getting homework done quickly is an issue, especially for Alice (a wonderful Tess Benger). She has endless questions of her harried teacher Mr. Charles who is always late. For example, why are there two clocks in the room indicating different times? Tess Benger plays Alice with intense curiosity and a desperation ‘to know.’ She is not being disruptive when her hand shoots up again and again to ask a question. She just needs to know. Benger’s face creases with confusion when she is not given an answer. One can feel the intensity of her emotions at such times.  

Once Alice goes down the rabbit hole, she meets the White Rabbit (Matt Pilipiak) who is always late, Tweedle Dum (Landon Doak) and Tweedle Dee (Fiona Sauder), the Cheshire Cat (a compassionate, kind Aisha Jarvis), the Red Queen (Shakura Dickson) and a philosophical Caterpillar (Ben Page). Again, Alice’s curiosity is in full-glow thanks to Tess Benger’s shining performance.

In this version Alice’s real life in her class with her school friends melds into her imagined adventures in Wonderland. For example, Mr. Charles who is the harried teacher aware of time and played beautifully by Matt Pilipiak, also plays the White Rabbit, with the pocket watch, and is always aware of being late. Alice’s classmates become other characters. Ruby (Shakura Dickson), the smartest, most eager kid in the class becomes the confident, imperious Red Queen.

The wonderful character of the Cheshire Cat (a smiling, accommodating 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). Alice is tenacious about completing the challenge of dealing with eight squares before she has fulfilled the Red Queen’s challenge.         

And it’s a musical.  This company is so gifted with imagination and talent—they all play instruments during the show. Many taking turns playing piano as characters shift and change from scene to scene.  Ad they all sing beautifully.

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. Fiona Sauder’s adaptation also reflects that juxtaposition between both worlds.

Last year I was aware that the production seemed to subtly reference George Floyd through lyrics of the fearless Red Queen, this year played with energy and confidence by Shakura Dickson.  At one point the Red Queen is instructing Alice on the rules and how to be a Queen.

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.

Shakura Dickson is a strong singer/actress. There is such confidence and hauteur in this striking performance.  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.

But this year’s production brought new revelations in this second viewing. There is a beautiful, tender duet/scene with Alice and Caterpillar (a sweet and kind being as played by Ben Page) who is about to break out of their cocoon and change into a beautiful butterfly. Kudos to Ming Wong for her vibrant costumes.  The scene is as much about gender fluidity as it is about physically changing and growing.

But then there is a song at the end called “Questions” which explores their importance and has this lyric:

“DON’T BE AFRAID

THE THOUGHTS IN YOUR HEAD ARE IN EVERYONE’S

SOME NEVER ASK, SOME ONLY LISTEN TO SOMEONE ELSE

TRUST YOURSELF”

Considering the addictive hold the (anti)social media has on so many people who never question anything but just listen to “someone else,” that lyric above is profound.

At the centre of this wonderful production is Tess Benger as Alice,  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.

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, very inventive and heartfelt. She also adds a wonderful comment at the end of her programme note: “Keep asking questions, small and large. Because with curiosity and kindness, the world, which is going through a bit of a tender time these days, cannot help but be a better place. Happy Holiday season to you and those you love.” Perfect.

This is a dandy production of Alice in Wonderland from Bad Hats that reflects our changing world. It has grown in fearlessness and depth since last year. It will appeal to families with teenagers or even younger kids. It asks questions like: who are we? What will become of us? What do you want to be?  Questions that are asked from one generation to another. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing this glorious production.

Soulpepper presents Bad Hats Theatre’s production:

Plays until January 7, 2024.

Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)

 www.soulpepper.ca

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