February 13, 2008

Growing Up, Down the Rabbit Hole

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In order to capture the madcap chop-logic of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland for the stage, the adaptation by Andre Gregory and the Manhattan Project blurs two seemingly incompatible dramaturgical styles. Their adaptation uses the stripped-down, visceral directness of Grotowski’s “Poor Theatre” along with a hyper-real multimedia panorama. The result is a kind of absurd paradox in its own right.

On the one hand, the production at the Schwartz Center (which showed through Feb. 10th) makes maximal use of the minimal black box space, emphasizing the actors’ intimacy with the audience. Instead of props, at many points in this production the actors’ bodies are utilized in various contortions to produce a fully-realized imaginative world. The few props that are used, such as umbrellas, also become transformed in creative ways over the course of Alice’s journey so that nothing is merely what it seems. Grotowski’s theater is known for its nearly religious — if not acetic — communion with the audience and its rigor in eliminating barriers that prevent actors’ control over their bodies. “The Poor Theatre” boils away everything except theater’s essence in the actor, who, for Grotowski, must be a spiritual as well as a physical athlete. It is the magic of the imagination that transforms an empty space into a stage.

On the other hand, this production teems with a hallucinatory array of TV screens and video projections. The video (by Amanda Katz) offers both live-action shots of the actors on stage in “real time” as well as prerecorded footage. However, one cannot always tell which is which since the live video-feed is often electronically manipulated while the prerecorded footage sometimes resembles what is happening on stage. At other times, the screen shows what one can’t see on stage — a roving camera-person gives us a view from the inside of a football huddle as well as close-ups of the audience. Kaleidoscopic special effects and vertiginous feedback loops enhance the disorientation evoked by the linguistic games and the zany characters of the story.

Despite all the hi-fi wizardry, however, it is the low tech virtuosity of the actors that carries the play. Sophomore Amanda Idoko exhibits a deft maturity in the title role as an innocent fourth-grader trying to make sense of the changes she experiences as she grows-up in the confusing adult world around her. The rest of the talented ensemble takes on a fast-paced assortment of characters, which includes a snotty but likable little mouse, a child-abusing cook, a smarmy, above-it-all Humpty-Dumpty, and a somewhat benighted knight-errant. The actors, when they’re not in character, also dash around the stage as their bodies stand in for scenery and special effects. For example, during Alice’s croquet match with the Red Queen, the other actors take the parts of the wicket and the balls, as they roll and dive under and around each other.

If there was any downside to the acting, it was that certain aspects resembled the Disney version of Alice a bit too closely, such as appropriating the cartoon’s hookah-smoking caterpillar’s insouciant drawl. This version of Alice is anything but Disney-fied, though, choosing to foreground the lascivious and violent nature of a mind about to erupt into the frenzy of adolescence. There were a few times when I thought the production needlessly went a little too far, breaking the frame of the storyline for the sake of bit of bawdy or a cheap political potshot, which it could have done better without. The shrill intrusions of our mundane existence seemed flimsy when compared to the ever-changing wonderland of fantasy that the production so successfully brought to life.

Overall, director Norm Johnson orchestrated a trippy imaginative journey down the rabbit hole. The acrobatic choreography and characterization produced a rapport with the audience whose charged awareness could bring about mind-bending effects. Likewise, the vortex of multi-media around the stage portrayed the never-ending layers of overlapping realities. The topsy-turvy logic of the production demonstrated how acting itself can be a form of mediation while, ironically, various technological simulations can result in a gut-level immediacy. The production evoked a sense of the continual transformations of growing up in a crazy, comic world where the greatest absurdity might be to take anything too seriously.