Friday, July 5, 2019

"Alice in Wonderland": Day 7, Show 7, Theatre Eddys Goes to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Alice in Wonderland
Eva Le Gallienne & Florida Friebus
Adapted from Lewis Carroll

The Cast of Alice in Wonderland
Dreams are often disjointed and full of strange things we sometimes only slightly recognize while they take us places that range from fascinating to fearful, from silly to sad, from comforting to frightful.  In directing Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Alice in Wonderland (adapted during the Great Depression from Lewis Carroll’s original by Eva Le Gallienne & Florida Friebus), Sara Bruner has with wild, unbounded imagination succeeded in turning the massive Allen Elizabethan Theatre into a dreamscape where near-countless scenes rapidly toss and turn in a little girl’s head as she dozes away.  Like in an actual dream, some of those fabulous and fantastical dreamed scenes are vignettes that make for a moment absolute sense while many others come and go so fast that the impressions they leave for her and for us may likely be forgotten upon waking.  But what will be surely remembered by her upon waking and by us upon exiting is that we have traveled together on a journey in a world populated by strange and wonderful beings that bear resemblance to pictures we have seen in our childhood books but when met live, are more whimsical, wild, and wondrous than any past picture or dream we have ever seen.

Emily Ota immediately convinces us she is in fact a seven-and-a-half-year-old Alice when she enters stomping about in a mood of childlike tantrum. Kicking furiously a stump, she collapses crying in a big, blue chair that has conveniently presented itself for her.  As her subsequent dream begins and proceeds, Alice is often impetuous and impatient, a know-it-all who is also extremely curious, and someone who takes everything quite literally but who also cannot help asking time and again, “Why?”  In other words, Emily Ota’s Alice is a typical little girl who can turn her proneness of being a bit bratty quickly into the ability to be the most fully charming, immediately likeable princess one would ever want to meet.

Emily Ota & Shyla Lefner
As she sings to herself in a state of half-awake, half-sleep, her dream world takes over as a big-eared, smartly dressed White Rabbit with huge pocket watch (Shyla Lefner) bustles all about worrying about being late.  Motioning for Alice to follow her, they head together in a most fanciful tumble into Wonderland, with different-sized hoops that dance all around them becoming their tunneled, turning, and twisting highway to the world below. A door too small to enter leads Alice through a sequence of size-altering adventures that lay proof to a director’s ingenuity as Sara Bruner calls upon the creativity we all once had as children to create this child’s world of fantasy.

Emily Ota & Lauren Modica
Alice finally enters Wonderland only to fall into a lake made for us real by the first of many miracles of lighting and sound that Mary Jo Dondlinger and Richard L. Hay respectively have designed for the evening’s land of impossible fantasies.  Bobbing in and out of the water, she meets a talkative blue-eared, big-eyed Mouse (Anthony Heald) who is totally friendly in his rapid conversation until Alice keeps mentioning her cat, Dinah – something a mouse does not want to discuss at all.

Emily Ota & "Birds"
When on dry land, adventures start coming at Alice in such a rapid succession that neither she nor we can catch our breaths.  Four,giant, feather-losing birds of various multi-colored, gawky-strutting species (whose origins could very well be Dr. Seuss) include her in a race and are totally ready to make her part of the flock until she once again mentions a cat who happens to like eating birds.  A Dormouse (Cristofer Jean) tells Alice his life story by reading it off his long tail while a puckered-lip, hippie-donned Caterpillar (Brent Hinkley) smokes his hooka as he offers sage advice and life-important philosophies.  While we too listen to what he says between his puffs that produce smoke of floating hoops, we are actually more interested in watching his eight legs that dangle and dance over the high-above ledge where he pontificates.

A beady-eyed Frog (Miriam A. Laube) with an intriguing invitation; a Duchess (Kate Mulligan) with the ugliest of babies who sings of how she abuses and eats her children; and a multi-sectioned, purring, and appearing/disappearing Cheshire Cat (Lauren Modica) are just some of Alice’s further encounters – all of which she alternates between wonder-packed amazement and twenty-question interrogations. 

Eddie Lopez, Cristofer Jean & Danforth Comins
Her questions particularly spill forth when she lands at a tea party that never ends (since the March Hare’s clock is stuck permanently at six).  There she is entertained while drinking from her three-leveled teacup by the hosting hare with pink floppy ears (Eddie Lopez), a buck-toothed Mad Hatter with his nonsensical riddles (Danforth Comins), and a sleepy Dormourse who wakes up long enough to tell in his squeaky voice a tale about sisters who live in a well of treacle (Cristofer Green).

Miriam A. Laube, Emily Ota & Robin Goodrin Nordli
But so much more is to come for Alice, with the kingdom’s various royalties still to be met.  Queens abound, including the absolutely short-tempered and very bossy Queen of Hearts (brilliantly enacted by Amy Kim Waschke); the pompously strutting Red Queen (Miriam A. Laube) whose every turn elicits its own sound effect as she runs faster than anyone without ever moving forward; and finally the White Queen (Robin Goodrin Nordli) who blows in and then out again in a terrific windstorm that is one of the evening’s best moments of full-stage, full-cast chaos.  But it is hard to top the fun and fury of the Queen of Heart’s game of croquet that involves the entire audience in batting around the balls that are sent there way by the night’s best of all props (thanks to scenic designer Richard L. Hay), pink flamingo croquet sticks that look as if they could fly away at any minute.

Daniel T. Parker & Kate Mulligan
And how can we overlook a joking Humpty Dumpty (David Kelly) whose perilous perch high in the heavens leads to an inevitable plop forty or fifty feet below before he is hilariously put together again by king’s men on their stick horses (the only kind of stallions we will see all night)?  The non-identical, identical twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Kate Mulligan and Daniel T. Parker); a Tom-Edison-aspiring White Knight (Cristofer Jean) whose inventions include anklets to protect his “L-shaped” horse from sharks, and a Knave of Hearts (Brent Hinkley) whose trial for stealing the Queen’s tart (remember that one?) demands Alice be a witness all become part of the constant parade of storybook characters whose stories are quick and often nonsensical and/or non-memorable but whose appearances all are eye-popping visions never to be forgotten.

Daniel T, Parker, Vilma Silva & Emily Ota
And that is because the star of the evening who rivals Director Sara Bruner in deserving the most applause is Helen Q. Huang whose scores of designed costumes cannot be described in words but must be seen to be believed.  It is incredible how she is able to imagine to life all of Lewis Carroll’s wildly weird concoctions – ones like a Gryphon (Vilma Silva) who is a cross between lion and eagle or a Mock Turtle (Daniel T. Parker) with his gigantic shell and over-sized paws.  What many of us have seen only created by animators and artists, costume designer Helen Q. Huang and wig designer Cherelle D. Guyton have now left us with larger-than-life memories of colorful characters without peers in any other medium.

Frankly, I must admit I have never been a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland – as a kid or now as an adult.  During some parts of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival extravaganza, I checked in and out of the poems recited or the songs sung – neither of which added much in my opinion to the evening’s enjoyment.  And as scenes came and went often in a rather abupt manner, some of them worked better than others in leaving a mini-story to be later recalled (as said earlier, much like in a night’s dream).  However, from a production standpoint alone, I heartily recommend that OSF’s over-the-top, all-bells-and-whistles Alice in Wonderland is definitely a ticket worth purchasing and a show worth seeing.

Rating: 4 E

Alice in Wonderland continues through October 12 the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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