Alice in Wonderland is a problematic property for adaptation, as was evinced all too recently in Tim Burton's latest attempt at the material. The problems are two-fold. The first being that the pop-culture iconography of the books far outstrip the stories themselves. The second being that, structurally, the Alice books are messy. They are episodic galivants through fantastically bizarre worlds of mimsy, and hence they have no clear story arc. Ask Joe Q. Average what the story of the original Alice in Wonderland was and they will likely only have a vague answer for you. However, they will be able to mention all of the important characters, items, and locations by name. The Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, the White Rabbit, the Drink Me bottle, the Mad Hatter, etc. So any adaptation of the material is beholden to these figures, and yet has to deal with a plot which does not fit any semblance of a modern three-act narrative. Resolving these parallel conundra, in so many ways, defines the nature of any modern telling of Alice. With that in mind, we head into the world of Ophelia Theatre Group's Your Alice.
"Eliza Shea as Alice opposite Samuel Adams as Charles makes for a formidable chemical force"
This new, borderline Brechtian, adaptation takes its first cues from the world of physical theatre. Boistrous, magical movement pieces compose large segments of the play. This avant-garde approach is interesting, and leads to some wild visuals. Writer/Director Billie Aken-Tyers leans into this unconventionality even further by using the baseline structure of the book as the show's skeleton. We go through events in, more or less, the order that the book does. However, running in tandem with that is the real life story of eleven year-old Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the book's Alice, and a young writer called Charles Dodgson (Future alias: Lewis Carroll).
Charles writes the stories for Alice to play in. As he writes, the actors around the stage become the characters he describes by putting on hats and costume pieces. As the story develops we get the sense, and then the explicit declaration, that Charles and Alice are falling into a love of sorts. Of course, their radical age difference makes that prohibitive, and they struggle against societal mores by escaping into their fantasy world. But they can only run for so long…
Your Alice is a show that feels like a good first draft of a strong idea. Visually it is gorgeous, a theatrical Victorian psychedelia. Gregory Gale's costumes are to die for, and the movement work choreographed by Aken-Tyers and co-director Michael Bradshaw Flynn is fascinating to watch. A couple of sequences are a little overdrawn, but the cast are energetic and vibrant enough that this can, largely, be overlooked.
Musically, the show is also a lot of fun. Composer Stephen Murphy has created a score that falls beautifully within the era, with slight modern flair. Think a less aggressive version of The Dresden Dolls and you about hit the mark. Tamara Sevunts and Megan Magee on piano and clarinet, respectively, play his score between their acting scenes in the show.
As you might have guessed, given the preamble, the issues in the play, as it is now, arise, in the story structure. Too much of the Alice-Charles relationship/conflict gets back-loaded into the second act of the play, and the first act is a little too in love with its physical storytelling of the Wonderland narrative. Therefore we are treated to great visuals, but a lack of context and structure.
Alice and Charles' story provides much needed rigidity and order to such a fanciful play, but it's pitched too ambiguously at first, and doesn't really kick in as a proper source of conflict until the beginning of the second act. When it does, the narrative solidifies and focuses ten-fold, but it takes too long to kick in. Consequently, the first few Wonderland scenes in the play feel orphaned, and the Alice-Charles story feels rushed.
"With the Wonderland scenes it is difficult to tell what is cribbed from Carroll and what is newly minted"
Now, this is not to negate all the good the play does. As mentioned before, it looks and feels gorgeous. It is also played wonderfully. The Wonderland ensemble are barrels of fun, and Eliza Shea as Alice opposite Samuel Adams as Charles makes for a formidable chemical force. Shea in particular makes a stunning transition through the play from girl to woman. Additionally, Aken-Tyers writes excellent dialogue. With the Wonderland scenes it is difficult to tell what is cribbed from Carroll and what is newly minted; and in the real-world scenes, Alice and Charles trade lines that are both character and period authentic. All of the elements are present for this play to excel, but currently they are in need of reorganization. Because of that, the play is merely fascinating, instead of groundbreaking.
It's short run has now ended, but I, for one, look forward to seeing what will happen to the property in future. Aken-Tyers has a show here with huge potential, and plenty of good raw material to work with. It all just needs aligning and refining.