Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Most of us remember Alice’s words, “curiouser and curiouser”, as she explored the absurdities of Wonderland, sometimes funny; sometimes scary. In this elaborate and truly extra-ordinary production of Alice in Wonderland at the Shaw Festival, Alice’s curiosity and courage help her overcome fear and confusion, as she journeys through a world of imagination, reflecting Victorian society & turning it upside-down.
Oxford mathematics professor, Charles Dodgson, originally created the story in 1862, while taking the three Liddell sisters – including Alice – on a summer afternoon boat ride. Dodgson published the classic novel under the pen-name, Lewis Carroll, in 1865, and staged in 1886.
In this larger-than-life production, director Peter Hinton, pays attention to the slightest detail – with wonderful support from his creative team – Eo Sharpe’s inventive set design, the creative and dazzling costumes by William Schmuck, the skillful and magical projections designed by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson, and the highly effective lighting by Kevin Lamotte. These touches all add to the power of the dramatic narrative.
The musical direction, by Allen Cole, and conducted by Paul Sportelli, also enhance the production, as does the choreography by Denise Clarke. There is even “flying by Foy.” The play is a multi-media production that does not overpower the poignancy and humour of the script.
The cast is large, with most actors taking multiple roles. Alice, played with passion and grace by Tara Rosling, holds the show together. We see the world from her perspective – even as she grows curiously larger and smaller (done in amazing ways). It is refreshing to see an Alice with short, bobbed hair; according to a publicity video, the real Alice may, mischievously, have cut her own hair short in defiance of Victorian norms. Graeme Somerville plays a kindly Dodgson, and also does two wonderful turns as the Mad Hatter and the Mock Turtle. The Mad Tea Party, featuring Kyle Blair as the March Hare and Patty Jamieson, as the long-suffering Dormouse, is one of the highlights of the show – containing both absurdity and intense emotion.
Also dazzling is the choreographic device of having the Caterpillar played by six men, each reclining on the other to make up the caterpillar’s segmented body. Donna Belleville is wonderful as the Duchess, both ascorbic and touching, and Jennifer Phipps is a delicious Cheshire Cat (grin and all). Moya O’Connell is properly dogmatic as the Queen of Hearts (“off with her head!”) and solicitous as Alice’s mother. Ben Sanders is a fussy, likeable White Rabbit.
The first act, with its more surrealistic, dreamlike and wondrous elements, was more engaging than the second – in which Alice learns some life-lessons – in a satire of politics and the law. In both acts, Carroll’s own puns and plays on words are highlighted. Musicality and non-rationality become more important than morals and meaning. In the end, Alice returns to her Victorian world – but with a new vision. She has grown up – but she has also experienced childhood in a wonderfully new way.
This play would best be suited to children age 10 and up. Younger ones might lose focus, or be overwhelmed, but older children, adolescents, and adults are most welcome at SHAW’s wonderland !
“Alice In Wonderland” is playing at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 16th.