Thursday, June 12, 2008
Next stop, Wonderland
Elizabeth Pearson, Jennifer O'Connor and Amy Meyer go down the rabbit hole.
Plenty of people haven't noticed, but there's a loose network of smart young actors working in Boston now - they're not loyal to a single troupe, but you'll find some of them most nights at the Piano Factory, or with Whistler in the Dark downstairs at the New Rep, or in the latest production from Way Theatre. Right now you can find a covey of them roosting at the Calderwood Pavilion in Imaginary Things, or, Treacle from the Well, a new show from the fledgling troupe Imaginary Beasts. Inspired by the classic Alice in Wonderland books, and written and directed by the (heretofore-unknown-to-me) Matthew Woods, Impossible Things aspires to be "an experiment in theatrical nonsense," in the manner of the Reverend Dodgson's grand experiment in literary nonsense. Whether Mr. Woods fully succeeds in that ambitious aspiration I'm inclined to doubt; still, his show is a surprisingly charming entertainment, marked by delicately evocative design and ingeniously poetic movement.
Indeed, as my friend Art Hennessey has pointed out, the costumes are the real stars of this show. Designer Cotton Talbot-Minkin (write that name down, local producers) clearly knows just what she's doing - her bio lists five British pantomimes among her designs - and she has beautifully colorized, and slightly eroticized, the essential look of John Tenniel's original imagery. No one's listed as set designer, but it should also be noted that the simple scaffold-and-curtain upstage works beautifully with both the costumes and Brent Sullivan's imaginative lighting - and the bow on the package is the inventive soundtrack (again uncredited) which mashes up everything from Dark Side of the Moon to that song you always hear on the calliope. In short, the design here is of a sophisticated piece, and often operates at a visual level (above right) you'd expect from a theatre with ten - or a hundred - times this one's budget.
Still, whether the text measures up to this vision I'd say is an open question. Like many a show inspired by a classic, this one is inevitably shadowed by its source, the actual Alice books, and Impossible Things sometimes feels like a smart tour through a Bennington or Vassar term paper, with an attendant, enthusiastic air of "Isn't this totally cool?" Which it is, definitely - I'm just not sure what the Imaginary Beasts have brought to the party that's actually new - and some things about Alice which I feel are central to its experience have mysteriously vanished down the rabbit hole.
For Alice, of course, is not so much whimsical "nonsense" as intellectually penetrating "non-sense," that is, a strange exploration of the conundrums slithering like slithy toves within the confident construct of our discourse. Carroll famously dithers between mathematical and linguistic logic (a topic in little evidence here), and a salient fact about Alice - that many people forget - is that frustration and anger are always banging about in it, violence is often incipient, and the sunny languor of its heroine is shadowed by the suppressed, pedophilic paradox of its author: i.e., that any congress with his dream girl will shatter the very quality that attracted him. To further explore these themes at the level of the source is one "impossible thing" that's probably too much to ask of Imaginary Beasts; still, some original extrapolation of Dodgson is the question the production begs, isn't it?
Instead, we get a poetic, lightly ironic gloss on Alice's addled, victimized femininity (there's only one boy in the show, the versatile Jordan Harrison). The script loosely follows the fate of "Mary Ann" - an obvious doppelgänger for Alice, Mary Ann was the White Rabbit's unseen maid, with whom he confused Alice at the opening of her Adventures in Wonderland. Mary Ann's identity, as conjured by Imaginary Beasts, turns out to be multifoliate, to say the least, as she endures travails similar to her literary sister's - summer storms, surreal tea parties, mysterious train trips, and other curiouser misadventures lead to a final encounter with the authorities (and perhaps even death) in what looks like a shadowy spider web.
But if at times the show meanders (sans, I'm afraid, the books' famous dream logic), it's still punctuated by striking imagery: the repeated appearance of a Magritte-like portent of death, twirling a parasol and trotting like the White Rabbit, was a particular favorite of mine, as was that summer shower, and a brilliant tableau vivant of a Tenniel illustration from Through the Looking Glass (above left). The show's individual performances were sometimes nearly obscured by the stagecraft, but there was still strong work in most episodes. Eliza Lay - who's now kind of the reigning queen of the fringe theatre scene - was, as usual, a standout, although she seemed a bit too ruminatively self-aware for either Alice or Mary Ann (or was the idea that Mary Ann was Alice all grown up? I wasn't sure). She may have been overshadowed, however, by Jennifer O'Connor, a mainstay of Whistler in the Dark, who was deployed in a dizzying array of roles, from a frog to a sheep to Marilyn Monroe (a thematically extraneous moment, I thought, but O'Connor pulled it off). Amy Meyer and Elizabeth Pearson, always light on their feet, provided enthiastic back-up in a similar variety of personae. This troupe certainly has great potential - but next time I'd like to see them deploy their skills - and Mr. Woods's visual talent - on an actual great script, rather than an also-ran of their own devising.