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Jane Enkin

Alice Through the Looking-Glass - Review by Jane Enkin

By Jane Enkin, November 30, 2015

Alice Through the Looking-Glass

RMTC John Hirsch Mainstage
November 25 – December 19, 2015



Alice Through the Looking-Glass is gorgeous, funny and fascinating, a sugarplum stuffed with wry visual humour, verbal wit, and enthusiastic, energetic performances.


The book Alice Through the Looking-Glass is the sequel to Lewis Carroll's book Alice in Wonderland. Alice travels to a different wondrous place in this story – a world of reversals and outlandish characters.


Canadian poet James Reaney's script stays close to Carroll's book, so if you have a favourite scene from the story you'll likely find it here. Favourite phrases, too – the Red Queen tells Alice that in this place you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place, Humpty Dumpty asserts that he can make a word mean exactly what he wants it to, and the White Queen rejoices, “Why sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


There is an opening scene in Alice's room, where she treats her kitten as sternly as she has been treated for misbehaving and then plays with her lovingly and creatively. “Let's pretend” flows into a magical transformation, and the story unfolds as a series of episodes in the Looking-Glass world. Alice engages in conversations and arguments, but she is often called upon to be a listener and spectator, especially when a character feels the urge to recite or to sing. Although reluctant to hear yet another performance -- “Is it long?”-- she always settles in and shares the theatre audience's delight.


In addition to the many encounters and adventures, there is a through-line of affirmations for Alice – that she is good, that she is capable, that she is growing. These are encouraging sentiments, although perhaps a bit heavy-handed compared to the gossamer of Carroll's whimsy. It's clear that the brilliant Reaney uncovered something that is really there in the book, however – Reaney notes (in an abridged introduction included in the program) that the real life Alice, who was 6 years old when Wonderland was written, was 11 years old at the time that Through the Looking-Glass appeared. Through the course of the story, points out Reaney, Alice transforms from a pawn in the story's huge game of chess, to an assertive queen -- “Are we not watching the growing up of a child into an independent young lady?”


The show will be lovely, I think, for young children, and definitely allows adults to access a childlike sense of fun. Actor Gwendolyn Collins, who plays Alice, says that the role appeals to her because it provides the opportunity to be in touch with herself as a seven year old.


Director Christine Brubaker based her work on the original Stratford production directed by Jillian Keiley, where the wonder-filled set and costume designs by Bretta Gerecke first appeared. Gerecke says in the program, “I couldn't be more excited to bring this production to Winnipeg, as everything I know about being seven-and-one-half happened on the streets of River Heights.” Sound by John Gzowski, lighting by Kimberly Purtell, music by Jonathan Monro, choreography by Dayna Tekatch and puppetry coaching by Jan Skene all create mayhem, poke fun at pompous targets, and weave enchantment.


The costumes and wigs are oversized and brightly coloured; all the actors take turns as part of the chorus, dressed as big, dark-wigged reflections of the blonde Alice – and it's always worthwhile in this show to pay attention to what the chorus is up to. Humpty Dumpty, (Arne MacPherson) high on his wall, has ridiculously long arms (wielded by chorus-member-puppeteers) so he can reach down and pat Alice on the head. The queens flounce about in huge, dramatic robes.


The special effects of the show are the kind of transparent low-tech delights that you can only experience in live theatre. Streamers fall from above, paper puppets act out scenes and soap bubbles are particularly evocative when the dreaming Red King drifts by. The battling knights arrive on bouncy horses, then climb into full body-sized soccer bubbles and roll around the stage, colliding with one another in an impressive acrobatic display.


But really the magic of theatre always depends on strong performances, and this all-Winnipeg cast is marvellous. I've finally lived here long enough to become a fan of many of the wonderful performers on stage in Alice. Some, like Toby Hughes, I've enjoyed in comedy roles. Others I've only seen in serious, intense plays, and it's wonderful to see them in wacky, athletic, endlessly creative comedy.


Gwendolyn Collins plays Alice as a sturdy, sensible person, fond of questions and logic. At times Alice's reserve and politeness come to the fore, at times her spirited impudence, and at times she is truly passionate. Collins' enthusiasm carries all of us along on her journey. Her rich, supple voice brings out every colour of Alice's feelings.


As they are written, the rest of the characters are not nuanced, but forthrightly, exuberantly drawn types. Mariam Bernstein is a flamboyant, pragmatically vicious, wickedly entertaining Red Queen. Terri Cherniack, as the White Queen, finds just the right balance of fluttery, absent-minded grace and grounded wisdom. Toby Hughes' best moment is his entrance as the Red Knight, arrogant and elegant as he doffs his cape for battle. Ryan Wilkie's White Knight fails miserably, of course, at arrogance and elegance – it's not his style. He is bumbling and sweet, and makes a tender connection with Alice.


And then, among all these outrageous characters, Arne MacPherson appears as Lewis Carroll, a realistic portrait of a Victorian academic. He recites in a sonorous, rich, dramatic voice. So the most magical moment in the play came when I was given the delicious illusion that Lewis Carroll himself, seated in a cozy armchair, was reading a story to me.



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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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