Curiouser and curiouser Adaptation of Lewis Carroll classic about embracing the weirdness life throws at you
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Winnipeg’s Brady Barrientos is not quite a teen and not quite an adult. He’s a little bit of both.
Alice in Wonderland
Manitoba Theatre for Young People
● Opens tonight, runs to May 15
● Tickets $25 at wfp.to/alicetix
He’s a second-year voice major in university, with a pair of exams and a recital coming up, and right now, holding a triangle and wand, he’s in a rehearsal ahead of his professional stage debut in the Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s production of Alice in Wonderland, a classic story of youth on the verge of what comes next.
Appropriately, one of the many roles he will play is that of the caterpillar, a creature destined to transform into something else entirely.
“I’m 19,” says Barrientos, a graduate of West Kildonan Collegiate who has been singing since he could say tra-la-la. “I’m just starting to get into that phase where, like… I have to grow up. I have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood, and I don’t know where to go.”
Could there be a better encapsulation of Alice, who falls into a different world and isn’t quite sure how she got there, or even whether she’ll be able to return whence she came? She meets creatures who aren’t quite creatures and aren’t quite people, who spout nonsense but somehow make sense. Written in an illogical, scatterbrained fashion nearly 150 years ago by Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still finds a way to captivate.
It’s an exhilarating, befuddling predicament to find yourself standing on new ground, or seated next to a strange man in a weird hat offering you a cuppa tea. Who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by that scenario? Or at the very least confused?
Fiona Sauder would be. In fact, she still is.
At 29, the playwright, performer and artistic director of Toronto’s Bad Hats Theatre has taken part in dozens of theatrical productions, garnering awards and nominations left and right. She starred as Peter Pan in a 2019 production for MTYP. But still, Sauder is sometimes overtaken by anxiety about the role she plays in the world at large as she stares down her 30s through the lenses of her rounded glasses.
“I’m very lucky to be doing exactly what I wanted to do at Alice’s age; however, I have this deep-seated fear that the thing I’m doing will stop working,” Sauder says during a 10-minute rehearsal break. “And what if I change my mind? We have this idea that we can’t do that. We’re going to be an accountant and we can’t just become a therapist at 50.”
But why not, Sauder wonders. Do we really have to fall in line with expectations and stick to a plan devised by somebody else? Does growing up mean losing who we are? Aren’t the rules of society mostly nonsense?
That’s sort of what Alice in Wonderland is all about, Sauder says. Even its wacky world is a reflection of what’s happening on the other end of the rabbit hole or the other side of the looking glass. The challenge is not getting lost in the middle.
In rehearsal, getting lost is exactly what director Sue Miner is trying to prevent. The cast wears many hats: some wrote the play, all are responsible for producing the music during the production, and many act in multiple roles.
They also bear the burden and responsibility of moving the props — chairs, desks and rolling wooden panels on casters — around the set, avoiding a collision. The rehearsal today is focused on transitions, massaging the process so that each scene flows elegantly into the next.
It doesn’t begin smoothly: at the top of the hour, the cast meets the newly built rolling panels, which contain a bottom row that is meant to be removed when Alice drinks a potion and the walls close in on her. At first, the cast members fiddle with the latch, struggling to separate the two pieces.
But by the time Sauder and Barrientos return from their 10-minute break, what was once a bumpy road has been paved and the panels separate with ease, with Colleen Furlan’s Alice standing alone at the centre of the stage.
To Sauder, Alice is about asking questions and not losing your curiosity, two skills integral to problem-solving. A mistake people make is assuming that because the story is presented as a children’s tale, it can’t contain any lessons for adults, who are often victims of an even worse assumption: that they have nothing left to learn.
“The message is that we have to continue to grow. Continue to accept change. To reinvent ourselves and maintain that spirit of the younger version of ourself who was still learning,” says Sauder. “Because when we pretend that we know everything, we stop evolving. But we always have the ability to keep growing, even to the last breath.”
The youngest cast member puts it differently, but says the same thing.
“It’s always a hard battle, trying to figure out what’s going on,” Barrientos says. “But in this world, the truth is that nobody knows what’s going on.”
Not so different than Wonderland.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Friday, May 6, 2022 7:17 AM CDT: Changes to Colleen Furlan from Tess Benger