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This article was published 27/11/2015 (1791 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s seasonal holiday offering is not especially Christmas-y in its theme. But it’s certainly Christmas-y in its effect.
It feels like a surprise gift.
Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland, adapted by the late Canadian playwright James Reaney, is visually a holiday feast. And while the contraption-rich design elements may have come from the 2014 Stratford Festival production, the show also offers the homegrown pleasures of a locavore banquet, its cast fresh-picked from a pool of all-Manitoba actors.
We first encounter the little girl Alice (Gwendolyn Collins) here in the real world, bawled out by an unspecified matron (Mariam Bernstein) for unspecified naughtiness and banished to her room.
Alice’s distress draws her to a looking glass mounted above a fireplace. Her fantasy of the alternate universe therein yields a dreamworld where everything is backwards.
From great heights, she discovers the world looks like a chessboard, and Alice is promised by the grandly haughty Red Queen (Bernstein again) that if she makes the correct moves across the board, she herself may become a queen.
Of course, the journey is not as easy as that. Alice must encounter a series of challenges, including a flower garden with flora as rude as they are sweetly scented. The White Queen (Terri Cherniack) gives Alice a lesson in alternate looking-glass physics, where you have to go backwards to move forward, and memory accesses both past and future. (For the seeming innocence of the children’s-book milieu, author Lewis Carroll was a logician and mathematician, and didn’t hesitate introducing concepts that wouldn’t have been out of place in the golden age of science fiction.)
Another move takes her into the company of rotund twins Tweedledum (Tristan Carlucci) and Tweedledee (Aaron Pridham), who slow Alice’s progress with their roughhouse antics and naughty behaviour.
Humpty Dumpty (Arne MacPherson) gives Alice copious attitude, a dangerous proposition for an egg sitting precariously on a high wall. (This scene has a payoff that is, for lack of a better word, delicious.)
MacPherson also appears as Lewis Carroll himself, reading the classic poem Jabberwocky augmented by sumptuous puppet work (coached by Jan Skene).
While the play is not technically a musical, Rylan Wilkie, as the White Knight, does offer a second act showstopper that might be wrong for a non-musical, but is completely right in the anything-goes context of an Alice story. (Wilkie’s sweet and soulful singing voice doesn’t hurt.)
Collins admirably maintains her exuberant energy through the two-hour-and-15 minute performance (with intermission) but the entire cast is kept busy, busy, busy. If they’re not playing one of the iconic characters, everyone in the cast, men and women, also appear in Alice drag to puppeteer, move sets (with the aid of magnificent bicycle contraptions) and even provide some doo-wop backing vocals.
This production is an impressive calling card for Manitoba acting talent. There is so much to love here. Bernstein is a dangerous dynamo as the Red Queen, and Terri Cheriack embodies the dotty English elder as the White Queen. As Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Tristan Carlucci and Aaron Pridham play off each other like seasoned vaudeville veterans, equally adept at slapstick and wordplay. Dorothy Carroll is a droning delight in the role of a sentient gnat (another scene with a glorious payoff, by the way).
And whoda thunk a lean, angular, intense actor such as MacPherson would absolutely nail the role of Humpty Dumpty?
The holiday slot for this play is appropriate, but the timing is right in another way. In 2016, Tim Burton will release his own version of Through the Looking Glass as a sequel to his inexplicably successful 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland.
If the sequel is as tacky and overblown as the original, we can take comfort in the fact that this version not only came first, it’s better, both in its esthetic and its more tangible rewards.
Oh yes, there will be jellybeans.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
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