Starring: Tess Benger, Vanessa Sears
Director: Sue Miner
Music and Lyrics: Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko
Book: Fiona Sauder, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Run Information: Alice in Wonderland is currently streaming on Soulpepper’s website until April 18, 2021.
Bad Hats Theatre’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic is a nonsensical dose of whimsical fun.
Plexiglass barriers are the defining feature of Sue Miner’s set in Alice in Wonderland, a new musical by Bad Hats Theatre, presented by Soulpepper. And though the pandemic is not once alluded to in Fiona Sauder’s script, the set pieces are a powerful symbol of the times.
Mounted on wheels and fastened within a wooden frame, the six plexiglass barriers glide across the bare stage — at times caging in Tess Benger’s precocious Alice into claustrophobic boxes or acting as barriers between the young heroine and the mystical creatures of Wonderland.
In one moment, as a Caterpillar (Jacob Macinnis) calms Alice, who fears growing up in an ever-changing world, the pair press their palms against the pane. “But growing means slowly let going of parts that were you,” sings the Caterpillar in a plaintive voice, before metamorphosizing into a butterfly.
That scene — the emotional high-point of the show — serves as a pressant reminder of the effects this pandemic has on our children. How can they grow up in our ever-changing world? Will they have to let go of a part of themselves along the way?
In this rough-hewn adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic, the answer is left up to the audience to decide. Perhaps this thematic vagueness is due to the ambiguity of the central character.
We meet the wide-eyed Alice in a classroom, as her teacher (Matt Pilipiak) incessantly stifles her insatiable curiosity. Lost in her thoughts and waiting impatiently for the hours to tick by, she spots a rabbit who leads her to the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland.
But by the end of her adventures in the fantastical world, she remains much the same as the girl we were introduced to at the beginning — a confidently curious learner with an ear-to-ear grin and twinkling eyes that dart from left to right and back again. We don’t learn much about her, other than she loves asking questions that begin with “why”.
Fortunately, the Wonderland characters in Sauder’s adaptation are far more multidimensional. The Red Queen (Vanessa Sears) seems deliciously devilish at first glance, strutting in with a blood red dress and a train held up by here entourage of servants. But as she breaks into song — her dress giving way into a simple red tracksuit — she sings of how she broke into a patriarchal system, ascending from rags to royalty.
“Work the system, play within it,” she belts to Alice, while explaining to the child how she, too, can transform from a pawn into a queen by traversing the chessboard to the eighth square. Rapping in catchy hip-hop verses (composed by the talented duo of Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko), Sears’s Red Queen is no malevolent monarch, but a woman who has compromised her integrity and donned an aura of ice-cold ruthlessness to fit into a ruthless chessboard of a society.
Along her journey to the eighth square, Alice encounters otherworldly anthropomorphic characters: the loquacious duo of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (Landon Doak and Fiona Sauder, respectively), a spirited Dodo (Richard Lam), a Unicorn who can’t remember her name (Phoebe Hu), a stealthy Cheshire Cat (Jonathan Tan), and a Caterpillar who talks words of wisdom (Jacob Macinnis).
It’s through these characters that Sauder’s script shines with nonsensical whimsy and homonyms abound. Doak and Sauder in particular, sporting aviator hats and tie-dye shirts, are an energetic comedic duo as Dum and Dee, guards of the first square. And Macinnis’s grounded portrayal of the Caterpillar, along with some light-hearted moments as the busy-body Bill the Lizard, are also memorable.
But the crowning performance belongs to Sears’s two-faced turn as the Red Queen. It’s wonderful to finally see Sears sink her teeth into a meaty antagonist role after a slew of lauded runs as the protagonist, most recently Emmie in Caroline, or Change. I wouldn’t be surprised if she bags another Dora nomination for this performance.
With a 90 minute run time, Miner’s productions moves at a swift pace. Her choice to use items typically found in a classroom to mark each place in Wonderland plays into the idea of childhood imagination: umbrellas acts as wheels on a train, a blackboard transforms into a picnic table for the Hatter and Hare’s (again Doak and Sauder, respectively) tea party.
The nine person ensemble tirelessly moves the set pieces around the bare stage to craft each space, all while dancing to Cameron Carver’s bouncy choreography and doubling as the on-stage band. Too bad much of their effort is lost on the film, an amateur capture of Miner’s kinetic production.
There are too many instances of actors being off-screen while delivering their lines, or scenes where camera operators are in full view. Wide-shots are also annoyingly used in intimate moments — pulling away from the focus. Paired with Logan Raju Cracknell’s sometimes muddled lighting design, it becomes difficult to decipher who is speaking.
The camera work is slightly better in the ensemble-driven musical numbers, when Doak and Pokinko’s diverse musical palette takes over. While none of the songs are particularly memorable, save for two that belong to the Red Queen, their genre-crossing score spans hip-hop, jazz, and brooding classical ballads, and contain lyrics that are a dose of childish fun, sprinkled with Dr. Suess-like rhyming couplets on the side.
Behind the simple concept, there’s something in this production for kids and adults alike. To some, it’s nonsensical and whimsical entertainment that whisks you away to a fantastical world. To others, it’s a darker examination of our society — how we strive to compromise our integrity as we seek to transform into royalty from mere pawns. But at its heart, it’s message is clear for all: stay curious.