Playtime with children can often be a surreal experience while
their imaginations are still free and untethered by the constraints of growing
older. Thus is MSU Summer Circle’s current interpretation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in
Wonderland" (directed by Mary Job) the odyssey of a child at
play being regulated and warped by slightly older children. Based on the
original concept by the experimental theater group The Manhattan Project, under
the direction of Andre Gregory, this faithful yet condensed adaptation brings
new meaning to Carroll’s words with very imaginative physicality.
Even in the humid, stagnant air of a Michigan summer, Job
makes her actors bend, twist, throw, jump, run, and squat into every animal and
object mentioned throughout “Wonderland.” Sometimes they even simultaneously
intertwine to form the more complex creatures such as the flame-eyed Jabberwock
from “Through the Looking-Glass” or Humpty Dumpty with his many handlers. And
with each creature comes a unique voice or even sounds that help complete the
illusion beyond a series of expensive costume changes.
For those completely unfamiliar with “Alice in Wonderland”
in any of its forms, the story follows a little girl named Alice who falls down
a rabbit hole and experiences various creatures in a dreamlike world before
essentially “waking up” again. Through the lens of Job and the Manhattan
Project, these Wonderland creatures stand in for adults in the real world who
have set up strict and often illogical rules for individuals such as Alice to follow
while the “adults” hypocritically break them.
How clearly this metaphor comes across partially depends on
your knowledge of the British culture in which the original text is based.
While Job and her actors do a fine job of enunciating and gesturing potential
meanings to the audience, the original text remains — for better or worse — nonsensical,
and therefore open to satirical spin instead of beholden to it.
Jenn Schafer leads the ensemble as Alice, dressed in
overalls and Converse All-Stars. Schafer’s plucky charm and untiring
physicality brings to mind Gilda Radner from “Saturday Night Live,” although
Schafer herself never has to put on a childlike voice to become a child.
The rest of the cast consists of Rusty Broughton, Kate
Busselle, Rachel Frawley, Andrew Harvey, and Jon Wierenga who populate the rest
of Wonderland as everything from birds to turtles to croquet hoops. Memorable
highlights include Broughton’s aristocratic Dodo bird and the screeching Cheshire-Cat
(though not at the same time), Harvey’s Lennon-voiced hookah-smoking
caterpillar, and Frawley’s axe-anxious Queen of Hearts. Equally impressive is
Alice’s initial entrance into Wonderland, a size and mind altering experience
that requires the entire cast to virtually shape-shift.
Nicholas Paola’s costumes evoke a smattering of styles from
post-Victorian to post-modern, while G. Max Maxin IV has designed a set that
conjures a delightfully dilapidated barn attic with its stained wood panels and
old clothing chests.
For children or adults, “Alice” is sure to hold your
attention for an intermission-less 90 minutes. Whether you will know at the end
what it all means is open to interpretation.
’Alice in Wonderland’
8 p.m. Wednesday, June 23 through Saturday, June 26 Summer Circle Theatre Performed at the outdoor theater near Michigan State University’s auditorium Free www.summercircle.org