Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Don't ask Alice

In Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark," the hunt itself turns out to be utterly pointless, because "the Snark was a Boojum, you see." The hunters were searching for something that, paradoxically, was actually something else (and which, via its dangerous non-existence, made its hunters non-existent too!).

And while I hate to be snarky about this (har de har), I'm afraid much the same thing could be said of Alice's Adventures Underground (above left), the new adaptation of the "Alice" books (plus bits of "Snark"), at the Central Square Theatre through Dec. 28; the whole show feels somehow misdirected, as if its seeming object didn't exist.

Perhaps this is because adaptress/actress Debra Wise has morphed "Alice" into a stressed-out mother who has lost her connection with her free-spirited daughter, "Carol" (what, no son named Lewis?), and tries to put "Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" through roughly the same paces Steven Spielberg put "Peter Pan" through lo those many years ago. But this time the conceit just doesn't take (if it did then, either), for reasons that are hard to pin down in particular, but easy to sense generally.

The first is that the Alice books (the first manuscript of which was titled, yes, "Alice Underground") are about the the little conundrums that invade the bored young mind - they're hardly about wish fulfillment for the middle-aged. And then there's the problem that they're also obsessed with frustration (as their author was - an avid photographer of naked little girls, his photograph of his muse, Alice Liddell, is at right). Alice never gets what she wants, and she wanders through a world in which pleasure is always just ever so slightly out of reach. Language and what she thinks of as logic fail her, and she's not so much freed as repeatedly trapped; indeed, the things she most gets "in touch with" are chaos and violence. I don't mean to make the books sound grim - they're anything but; but they're hardly about finding peace with your inner child; indeed, their message is that even children can't get in touch with their inner child, that it's impossible.

So after she falls "through" her looking glass as if it were a rabbit hole (a nice little mash-up), there's really nowhere for Wise to go with her basic premise without doing real violence to the material, and so she's left simply following the familiar tropes of the beloved books, with their point always somehow beside the point. Occasionally "Alice" recognizes daughter "Carol" amid the denizens of Wonderland - but this seemingly subconscious search never really comes to much, and anyhow the spirit of Lewis Carroll is basically the antithesis of such a blatant cliché. Still, even if the show seems basically out of touch with its own themes, the Underground Railway Theater has brought a dazzling level of imagination to its production anyway - it's a cornucopia of gorgeous drops and magical puppets and masks, by talented designers David Fichter and Will Cabell. The little critic in my head told me that the designs, brilliant as they were, were rather more brightly generic than Alice-specific, but the rest of me didn't really care. From a giant Humpty-Dumpty (at left) to Alices of every shape and size, the designs delight throughout, and the various gambits by which the heroine is transformed or travels through time and space are ceaselessly inventive - and the actors tirelessly leap through one transformational hoop after another (sometimes literally). Of the adults in the piece, probably Steven Barkhimer came closest to the subversive spirit of Carroll, while Robert Najarian, although always amusing, was never quite incisive enough (and in his velveteen getup he looked more like Willy Wonka than Lewis Carroll, anyway). The young members of the cast - Katie Green, Kyla Frieden and Alenah Garcia on the matinee I attended - all brought off their parts with charming aplomb.

As for Wise - she never flagged in energy, but sometimes you caught a flash of desperation in her eyes - she knew this wasn't working. To be fair, it's easy to see what tempted her to do the piece: Carroll's themes of the suspension of time and his floating sense of erotic loss seem to map ever so tantalizingly to the underside of middle-age. And Wise has devised some amusing parallels to Wonderland in the older Alice's frazzled landscape: her husband, for instance, runs about in a tux rather like the White Rabbit, and even, tellingly, calls her "Boojums." But Wise has yet to discover how to actually enter Carroll's garden of whimsical paradox, much less find her way through it.

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