January 30, 2008

Down the Rabbit Hole: Alice in Wonderland showing at Schwartz through Feb. 10th

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The counter-culture of the 1960s and ’70s is a myth to our generation. Our teachers, parents, role models — all must have felt the brunt of psychedelia and free-love and drum-circle anarchy — but to kids our age it’s all a chapter in the history book, part of the past we will never viscerally understand.
In 1972, Andre Gregory and his Manhattan Theatre Project adapted Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a bare-bones, minimalist stage play consisting of six actors, a few umbrellas, and a deep subtext screaming of cultural rebellion from beneath Carroll’s clever, innocent wordplay. Gregory and his 20-something colleagues understood the power that the Vietnam War and post-’50s America had on their psyches, and Alice’s quirky adventure became a dark foray into what many critics called a humorous trip into Hell.
Now, in 2008, the Schwartz Center is producing Gregory’s adaptation with a new set of 20-something viewpoints, with students who’ve only heard or read about 1970s America. One actress plays Alice, while five other actors surround her as a collective ensemble, at turns sprouting the Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, White Knight, et al, seemingly out of nowhere on the almost-empty stage. Aside from a few props and costume pieces, the actors create the world beyond the rabbit hole with nothing but voices and bodies, and Alice — a seven-year-old girl, we should be reminded — finds those celebrated adventures tearing at her sanity, and leaving her cold, confused, and alone.
In other words, this ain’t a bunch of singin’ flowers.
But whereas Gregory’s production had Alice devastated by noise and chaos, reflecting the severe lack of control 20-somethings felt during the Vietnam War, the Draft always breathing over their shoulder, the Schwartz’s production aims to create its own version of Gregory’s adaptation, allowing its six-person ensemble — ranging from 19 to 54 years old — to play with the themes surrounding America today. How much control do we have now compared to Cold War America? Is psychedelia as present today? Does that ‘hippie culture’ still have any cultural resonance?
The set for the Schwartz’s Alice in Wonderland, which runs through next week, suggests a 1920s traveling carnival, with barking carnies and all the frenzy and oddness of the old midway. That feeling of mythical history, of events we understand as popular culture but not necessarily as contemporary life, pervades the production. As Alice descends deeper into the rabbit hole, meeting all the same characters we all grew up with, we’re constantly reminded of how memories may change and how perceptions can be altered by something as simple as a new point of view. Just as Andre Gregory and his company could never hope to understand Lewis Carroll’s 1865 imagination, so can we 20-somethings never hope to understand 1972 America. We haven’t lived It — but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect, either.