Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories are ripe for creative adaptation. Most of us are familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, be it through the books, Walt Disney, or other adaptations. But the episodic nature of the books, their many characters, and Carroll’s nonsensical style give new artists a varied and fruitful toy box to play with.
Such is the case with James Reaney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Although a fairly faithful adaptation of the second Alice book, the play is chock full of opportunities for comedic performance, creative design and whimsical fun on the part of any theatre artists who put on the show. Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC), in their latest production of Alice, doesn’t waste a single one of these opportunities.
The role of Alice is a potentially thankless one for any actor; she’s in every scene, but still needs to be the least interesting character, acting as a surrogate through which the audience experience Carroll’s fantasy world. Gwendolyn Collins gives us a particularly strong Alice performance. She brings all the necessary childlike wonder and humour. She’s generous to her fellow performers, acting as the foil to all their comedic absurdity, but she’s always engaged with the audience, never letting us forget that this is her story.
Of course, though, it’s the supporting characters who provide most of the fun. The night’s biggest laughs go to Arne MacPherson’s Humpty Dumpty, made doubly funny by some truly hilarious puppetry. Aaron Pridham and Tristan Carlucci are responsible for some brilliant physical comedy as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Mariam Bernstein’s Red Queen is perfectly befuddling, coming across as simultaneously charming and threatening.
Where the show really shines is in the brilliant set and costume design by Bretta Gerecke. Her work brings an unexpected level of visual spectacle that theatre rarely needs, but that works wonders here. Working in tandem with Dayna Tekatch’s choreography, the work is truly transformative, going the extra mile to transport the audience along with Alice through the looking glass.
With a basic backdrop of a sloping checkered chessboard floor and layered red curtains (flashes of Twin Peaks!), an ever-scurrying chorus constantly tears down and redresses the set with flowers, train cars, boxing rings and all manner of fanciful sets. Everything is on wheels, and the whole operation half feels like we can see all the gears turning behind the magic, like an old-timey bicycle. Not only does it give the feeling that we’re seeing the work of some mad genius, but it also gives the constant sense that everything is not as it seems. This is, after all, Alice’s dream. We realize it even if she doesn’t, and Gerecke’s work truly feels like we’re watching someone dream a world before our eyes.
It’s a testament to Reaney’s writing and Christine Brubaker’s direction that Alice is able to have that dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness feeling without looking like a total mess onstage. The play is perfectly paced and structured, while still being dizzying and silly. The curtains coming down felt like waking from the best kind of dream. You wish you could close your eyes and jump back in, but, alas, back to the real world.