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.


  1. I'm always glad to see Boston actors getting the attention the deserve; but part of the life of Boston theatre is due to their always having stuff to do, and that's due in part to the playwrighting community as well. The Playwrights' Platform festival starts tonight (note: I'm not a member) at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre and runs for two weekends. Information is here: ... thanks, Robert B.

  2. Couldn't agree more, Bob. I'll put up something over on the "Coming Attractions" bar. But just btw, I didn't get any emails or publicity about this, so you could let them know about the Hub Review!

  3. I'm "sort of" the email-to-sites-and-blogs as opposed to the in-charge-of- press person, Jerry Bisantz. I sent out next week's schedule today, this week's 10 days ago or so... more on my blog...
    Playwrights Platform 36th Annual Festival of New Plays, 2008
    oston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Comm. Av., Boston.
    ickets $14-$17 at 866-811-4111 or at
    Series A Program Opens tonight! & Fri & Sat, June 12-14
    Curtain 8PM

    SHORT CUTS by Christopher L. King
    How is friendship like a haircut?

    POLE DANCING by R. Eliot Ramsay
    Backstage, a dancer's dressing room: an erotic confrontation.

    BEST PRACTICE by G.L. Horton
    Why does Evelyn get to decide how Miriam lives - or dies?

    A BAR, A MAN WALKS INTO by Bob Boulrice
    Whimsy featuring the Son of God as a bartender.

    THE ENTERTAINER by Phyllis Rittner
    A struggling musician plays the gig of his life at a nursing home.

    PAVEMENT PICASSO - by Richard Pacheco
    Two road line painters clash over what a man’s work means.

    P.A. by Lydia Bruce and Sandy Burns
    A powerful addiction is sweeping America.

    THE UNVEILING, by Ellen Sullivan
    A family discovers their loved one is buried in the wrong place.

    Series B Program: June 19, 20, 21 - Curtain 8PM
    CUT by R. Holly Jensen
    radition! Or..? A Blessed Event threatens family chaos.
    FORGIVING by R. Lida McGirr
    daughter's struggle to face her less than valiant behavior.
    ON THE STRUT by Hortense Gerardo
    s a 2200 ft parachute jump a good time for lovers' confessions?
    STOP REQUESTED by Gail Phaneuf
    stranger's perspective can open our minds and hearts.
    THE CELL by Kelly DuMar
    e's King of the Underworld: will she be his Queen?
    ON THE ROCKS- musical by Jerry Bisantz and John Carozza
    ometimes that last drink really is the last.
    WHAT WOULD DEBBIE DO? by Scott Welty
    TV show character as role model in a bank's moment of crisis.
    FESTIVAL ACTORS: Lis Adams, Sandy Armstrong, Zele Avradopoulos,
    erry Bisantz, Jackie Davis, Laura DeCesare, T. Anthony Donohoe, Peter
    loyd, Jennifer Fogarty, Scott Giangrande, Anabel Graetz, Michael
    addad, Geralyn Horton, Trudie Johnson, Eliot L Johnston, Spencer
    lein, June Lewin, Jennifer McCartney Joey Orrigo, Alli Ritts, Fred
    obbins, Liz Robbins, Teagan Rose, Dan Schuettinger Jen Shotkin,
    incent Siders, Stephanie Steinbeck, Steve Triebes, Andrew Wetmore
    more info on and photos at
    and at
    and - G.L.Horton's Stage Page Pod Cast