Do any of us emerge from childhood without encountering “Alice in Wonderland” and her iconic companions? Or repeating the story’s immortal phrases?
Alice and her nonsense-loving gang emerged into pop culture with the publication of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its 1871 sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Commonly published together as “Alice in Wonderland,” the hugely influential books have yet to go out of print. They have been translated into almost 100 languages, analyzed by countless academics, and spawned dozens of cinematic and theatrical adaptations.
One of those is Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus’ faithful take on Carroll’s text. That is the version brought to life by the Stephanie Shroyer-directed production beginning previews Sunday at A Noise Within, with a scenic design by Frederica Nascimento inspired by political cartoonist John Tenniel’s illustrations for the original book, and original songs by Josh Grondin. Eight actors portray 20-some characters throughout two acts — the fantastical “Wonderland” and slightly darker “Looking-Glass.”
Heading the cast is Erika Soto as Alice. A resident artist at A Noise Within, she has tackled serious, intense characters in recent productions of plays by Shakespeare, George Shaw, and Tennessee Williams, so the opportunity to portray Alice has been refreshing, despite the sometimes head-whipping challenge of conveying nonsense as sense.
“I’m so relieved to just be in absolute … wonder, for lack of a better term,” she says with a chuckle. “To just give myself permission to play, and to say yes to the ridiculous circumstances that this character finds herself in. I didn’t think it would be so fun to just let all that go and say, ‘Now I’m talking to a dodo; now I’m on a giant mushroom. [Laughs] This is real.’”
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” —Alice
Alice is too young to be coming of age, but she is on the precipice of maturing. Soto says the big question she and her castmates have asked throughout rehearsals (and also of Carrollian scholars at USC) is, “Who are you? Who am I?”
“That’s kind of a throughline throughout the play: coming to terms with who you are, and what it means to be that, and whether that’s something you decide for yourself, or it’s something that’s decided for you,” she says. “Whatever social restrictions are part of your time, does that define who you are? There’s a lot of conversation in the play about sense vs. nonsense and logic vs. something you just created, and how much of that plays into your identity. So identity is a huge question/lesson for Alice.”
Investing such a character with “personal humanity” is a challenge for actors trained in dramatic theater; rather than a straight-up children’s tale “Alice” can almost be approaches as a surrealist work. Wisecracking actor Kasey Mahaffy, who portrays the March Hare and Tweedle Dum, says he’s had to invert his usual character-building process to animate Carroll’s “indelible characters.”
“I usually work inside-out, which is developing the truth of the moment, understanding my character’s given circumstances, where he’s at, what his socioeconomic status is, what his relationships are — figuring all that stuff inside and then letting that work outward to affect my body, my voice, my situation and the performance, right? But this is working outside-in. All I really have to go on as an actor is … I’m the March Hare, so I know I am mad, meaning crazy; I know I am hungry; and I know that I’m a bunny rabbit.”
A member of the ANW company, Mahaffy took a hilarious turn as cheerleading BFF Simon in ANW’s January reading of Lauren Gunderson’s “Exit, Pursued By Bear.” “Alice” is his 15th or 16th play there. All but one has been “an athletic event,” he says, where he wrings sweat out of his costume by night’s end. For “Alice” he changes costumes, wigs, and even his teeth, and runs around onstage with his fellow actors; in one number as Tweedle Dum, he and Rafael Goldstein (Tweedle Dee) physically mirror each other. While children can delight in that frenzied “feast for the senses,” adults can savor Carroll’s wordplay.
“In addressing how wacky Wonderland is, if there is a point to be gleaned from Carroll,” Mahaffy says, chuckling, “it’s that I think he’s trying to attack, a little bit, our social mores and codified rules of society, of conduct. When you go into a world where everything’s upside down and has a different set of rules and norms, it points out how ours are arbitrary and questions why they exist. That’s why I love the Cheshire Cat’s quote, ‘We’re all mad here.’ Life is mad and crazy, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Wonderland or not.”
“What’s so interesting is that you don’t realize how in the zeitgeist this story/play/book is until you’re doing it,” he continues. “During the impeachment hearings, I heard maybe six references. On MSNBC this guy was like, ‘Boy, we’re really down the rabbit hole now.’ And I heard one guy say, ‘This is really through-the-looking-glass stuff.’ And then somebody else said something about Trump being the Mad Hatter at his own tea party. I heard somebody quote ‘curiouser and curiouser.’ It’s pervasive. It’s in our music, in the news, on the radio, on television.”
“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” —the Cheshire Cat
“I think every era, every decade has had its turmoil that defines that time, and something like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is such an escape,” Soto muses. “I can’t think of a time ever where people at some point have not needed that to survive.”
No matter that Carroll insisted there was no deep meaning in a story the world continually strives to deconstruct. Successive generations find it timely.
“A hundred percent,” Soto agrees. “In times of crisis, it’s the artists who create magic and wonder and whimsy, and who remind us of the glory of joy and play. We need that, as much as we need activism and radical thinking and passion and fire and action and all of that. There’s also something to be said about coming in communion in a space and giving yourself permission to just be free and be taken on a journey and relax. [Laughs] That last one is so hard. We’re all so busy being conscious and responsible adults right now, which is great. But I’m excited for our audiences to just remember what it was like to be a child. What a reprieve from everything that’s going on outside.”
Previews of “Alice in Wonderland” begin Sunday, March 1, the opening night performance is Saturday, March 7, and the play runs through April 18 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; recommended for ages 6 and up. Several post-show conversations and one scholarly symposium are scheduled after performances; see ANW website for schedule. Tickets: $25 and up. Info: (626) 356-3100. anoisewithin.org/play/alice-in-wonderland/