On May 31, the Avon Theatre was temporarily transformed into a backwards, crazy world when the Stratford Festival premiered “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” (script by James Reaney), a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. The playbill described it as the Side B to the original story, arguing the case that sequels and alternatives are often better than their original counterparts. But those words didn’t have much convincing to do; the whole audience was enchanted with the production from curtain rise to fall.
Speaking of the curtain, the play’s title was scrawled on it in giant letters, albeit backwards. On the off chance that anyone in attendance wasn’t familiar with Carroll’s works, they had a giant clue of what was about to follow. What they couldn’t have guessed at, though, was that they were about to lay witness to a magic show onstage. And what seemed like an ordinary chess board layout framed with red velvet curtains turned out to be so much more (designer Bretta Garecke).
The play opened with Alice (Trish Lindström) being banished to her room by her mother, where she tries to play chess with her pet cat, Kitty. It doesn’t take her long to wonder what life would be like on the other side of her mirror. As she clambers up onto the fireplace mantle that’s supporting the mirror, we’re unexpectedly met with the first bit of magic: the mirror slowly turns and turns, revealing another “Alice” on the other side.
Soon after that, Alice finds herself in a very Carrollian world, first meeting the Red Queen (Cynthia Dale) who instructs her to move to the eight square on the chess board to become crowned a queen. It’s what happens between Alice’s starting point at square two and her end point that contains all the wonderment, as she listens to Humpty Dumpty (Brian Tree) recite Jabberwocky on his unbirthday; gets a different perspective on logic from Tweedledee (Sanjay Talwar) and Tweedledum (Mike Nadajewski); comforts the victorious White Knight (Rylan Wilkie), who hasn’t grasped the sequence of how he’s supposed to move; and questions the White Queen (Sarah Orenstein)’s ability to remember unbelievable things (“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” she says).
What’s really incredible — besides what the Stratford Festival did with the play — is Lewis Carroll’s material. To the untrained ear, nothing makes sense and seems like he picked words and characters out of a well-mixed hat. But examine the material more closely, and it’s nearly perfectly synchronous (I say nearly because almost nothing in life is): the syntax in Jabberwocky reflects that of English, we humans choose to believe impossible things all the time, and what makes sense in Alice’s world makes sense in ours if we just reverse it from its mirror image.
Abstract the material a little further, and that’s where the beauty of Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” really shines through. It’s staggering to think how one person could have created this seemingly impossible world, only to have it make sense — upon closer examination — on a literal, figurative, metaphorical and spiritual level. Add in the fact that it’s timeless and able to appeal to any demographic, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the quiet gems of literature.
So for the Stratford Festival to pick it up, in association with Canada’s National Arts Centre, it’s harder to go wrong than it is to succeed. The material is so open to any sort of interpretation that directors of all styles and tastes can make it work. Jillian Kelley is simply the latest one, using creativity in a different way to bring “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” to life.
To create the magic that lies latent, she uses men and women dressed uniformly in blue-and-white dresses, military-style black boots, and long brown hair (or wigs) to move the normally unmovable along. This corps pedals bicycles outfitted as trees, moves a gnat (Elliott Loran) around on a wheeled tower, dress as oysters, act out the food fight scene at the end, and so much more. While it may have been more conducive to creating a magical atmosphere by dressing the corps in black, Kelley made a good decision to garb them in colours that would match the play’s bright aesthetic.
She even ingeniously got the audience involved for the jellybean scene by having one audience member pull on a ceiling-lowered rope that released jellybean packets attached to paper umbrellas, while the play took a brief respite so the cast could run up and down the aisles, tossing jellybean bags around like it was the end of a war. At first, it seemed like a lazy diversion but when the White King (Dion Johnstone) commented to Alice it was still raining, the technique made perfect sense.
It really was the kind of play that appealed to everyone, no matter what age they were. The kiddies got a kick out of seeing a book come to life (one girl behind me was particularly enthusiastic about announcing to her mother when the White Queen was about to turn into a lamb and the start of the jellybean scene), but it was a bit dark for others. A girl in front of me a couple seats over left halfway through the first half with her father, then halfway through the second with her mother. It’s understandable why: there are some fairly dark moments, quite realistically portrayed, that could cause a kid to blur the lines between real and imaginary.
Talking or no talking (although, the former was to be expected), “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” is an incredible play that causes you to suspend your disbelief, no matter how hard you try and hang onto it. And really, why would you want to when a production is this charming? It’s got depth, it’s got action and energy, and it’s got talent.
Let yourself be a kid again, and hop through the looking-glass. The material is phenomenal, the acting is phenomenal, and the experience is one we don’t allow ourselves often enough.
“Alice Through the Looking-Glass” plays through October 12 at the Avon Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/OnStage/productions.aspx?id=24390&prodid…http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/OnStage/productions.aspx?id=24390&prodid=52402