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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review: Well played, Stratford, well played. Alice Through the Looking-Glass opens in at the Avon Theatre

Alice Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Adapted for the stage by James Reaney
Produced in association with Canada's National Arts Centre
Directed by Jillian Kelley
Choreographed by Dayna Tekatch
Designed by Bretta Gerecke

Trish Lindstrom as Alice. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The Story: Alice, having been sent to her room "until she learns better manners", retreats into her imagination, which takes her into the world of her looking-glass, where everything happens backwards. As she makes her way across a giant chessboard to become a queen, she meets a wide range of impossible characters doing impossible things, until she begins to suspect she is in a dream - but whose dream is it?

Talk about a testament to the craftsmanship of the props and costumes departments at the Stratford Festival. An army of anti-Alices in blue-and-white dresses, wheeling around on an armada of bicycles attached to which are a forest of trees (onto which the leaves fall up) and giant flowers - not to mention the inevitable mess of Newtonian fluid that is all that is left of Humpty Dumpty after he takes his great fall off his great wall. And let us not forget the mile high or wide prop-wigs worn by the White and Red Queens that look like they weigh about ten pounds each. My neck hurts just thinking about it.
Brian Tree as Humpty Dumpty (centre) with Tom McCamus and Sarah Afful as Chorus Alices,
and Trish Lindstrom as Alice. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Well, it is a fantasy after all, things are bound to look quite fantastic, and the story makes about as much sense as adult rules do to the children like Alice who are expected to follow them. Director Jillian  Kelley's concept for the production is as clear as it is likely to get with such a story, the actors are given free reign to be as over-the-top as necessary, and the show often breaks the fourth wall - to great effect for an audience full of children.

In fact, since the Stratford Festival has marketed this production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass for children since the very start, I thought it only fair to let my review be written by  those for whom it was intended.

So at intermission I asked Ellie, Isaac, Berkeley and Miles if they were enjoying the show, and why. Ellie (age 6), wearing a sparkly mask in the true spirit of the show, answered with an enthusiastic "Yes! I want to know what will happen next!" and confessed she did not like the fire (sparklers, actually), "because" she explained quite awed, "I had the funny feeling it was real. But my favourite part was when she [Alice] touched the mirror and it went around and around - it was really cool!"
Cast members of Alice Through the Looking-Glass.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Miles (age 4) liked a different part. "Yeah," he said, "I liked when the bikes came out," referencing the bikes that became trees, flowers and other gigantic props, "but I like it all." (Miles also got to pull a giant rope in the second half of the show after intermission which no doubt became his personal highlight. I won't spoil what the rope-pulling wrought, but it was a delightfully sweet surprise.)

Isaac (age 5) had the same favourite character as the rest - Alice (played by Trish Lindstrom). "But I really liked when the Red Queen said, "Goodbye!" and jumped off the stage!" This was actress Cynthia Dale, literally throwing herself into the part, which the young audience definitely appreciated if Isaac was any indication.
Cynthia Dale as the Red Queen.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
But Berkeley (age 5) felt quite differently. When asked if she was enjoying the show, she answered with a grave frown and shake of the head. Oh dear. "Why not, Berkeley?" I asked. "It's too confusing," she said, still grave, and patted her cheek. Her grandmother Gretchen explained, "she didn't understand the part about the gnat, and it bothered her" referencing the talking bug that is both an actor behind Alice an invisible mite that Alice keeps swatting at and eventually smites (by accident). At this point Berkeley was pulling out a recent purchase from the gift shop and leafing through it - a copy of Alice in Wonderland. "Berkeley, do you think you'll enjoy the book more than the play?" I asked.  "YES!" came the emphatic reply. Oh dear.

Ok, so we head into the second half of the play, where the Lion and the Unicorn (Tyrone Savage and Gareth Potter respectively) have a boxing / karate / mixed-martial-arts battle, we meet Humpty Dumpty on his great wall - played to absolute perfection by Brian Tree with assistance from two of the anti-Alice Army - and where the White Knight (Rylan Wilkie) vanquishes the Red Knight (John Kirkpatrick), serenades Alice, Alice finally becomes a queen and returns to her own home.

Sarah Orenstein as the White Queen.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
My personal highlights? Sarah Orenstein as a delightful White Queen, bouncing around with that mile-high wig, and Brian Tree's Humpty Dumpty, incidentally the only actor whose English accent didn't sound put on because he is English, and the blink-and-you'll-miss-it-for-adults-only Last Supper tableau (cheeky, wot?)

But back to the critics who matter. I tracked some of them down at shows' end.
Rylan Wilkie as the White Knight.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Kaelynn (age 4) loved the Red Queen, and when the White Knight sang to Alice (a future musical theatre aficionado, methinks).  Her brother Kaine (age 5) loved Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Liverpudlian-sounding Sanjay Talwar and Mike Nadajewski respectively) pulling Alice into a game of Ring Around the Rosie, and adamantly did NOT like "the part where they put her [Alice] in her room." Understandably.

Sanjay Talwar as Tweedledee, Trish Lindstrom as Alice and Mike Nadajewski as Tweedledum.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Clare (age 10) thought the whole thing "very cool. The streamers and jellybeans were unexpected." (Oh, spoiler alert!) Clare also felt that Trish Lindstrom "captured a 7 and-a-half-year-old exactly." Her mom Maureen loved the cross-dressing Alices, which reminded her of a Mark Morris ballet. "It just flips things in your brain so you see things in a new way," she explained. "It challenges preconceived ideas. I really enjoyed it."

Cast members of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
And at this point Berkeley (age 5), our harshest critic, came running up. "I really liked the second part!" she burst out. "Humpty Dumpty was funny." Her grandmother Gretchen chimed in. "She perked up a lot with the jellybeans," she chuckled.

Well played, Stratford!

Alice Through the Looking-Glass continues in repertory until October 12.  The forecast for each performance is bright, with a brief shower of jellybeans.

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