If source material goes in and out of vogue, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the classic nineteenth century children's novel by Lewis Carroll, is decidedly "in" this year. There's a Syfy channel miniseries with Kathy Bates (Alice), A Disney movie with Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland), a Japanese anime version of an already popular manga adaptation (Pandora Hearts), and a volume of poetry (Alice in Verse). Add to the list a stellar stage adaptation at the The Irondale Center in Brooklyn: alice...Alice...ALICE! The most explicitly remarkable aspect of alice... is that it roves throughout the Irondale center, a gorgeous former church which has served as home to the Ensemble since the fall of 2008. An adult adaptation of a similar British children's classic, Peter Pan, inaugurated the space, making good use of the cavernous former sanctuary in suggesting that story's most magical element, flight. Alice's story, in contrast, begins by tumbling downwards, and so this production does too. It opens with the familiar picture of a two girls (Scarlet Rivera and Elizabeth Woodbury) seated beside one another with a large book. No sooner does Terry Greiss narrate a few opening lines than a man in a bowler hat (Damen Scranton) hurries past, muttering to himself. When Alice follows him down a rabbit hole (a staircase made into a wind tunnel with the help of a fan and confetti; scenic designer Ken Rothchild imbues each scene with similar inventive whimsy), the audience does too.
Directors Jim Niesen and Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, who also conceived the production, avoid layering their script with knowing commentary or preciousness. Instead, they treat Alice and all of the creatures she encounters on her odyssey with the dignity and self-assurance which the characters themselves possess. Because the story of Alice is so deeply rooted in the popular imagination, doing so permits each of the scenes a sense of deja vu at once comforting and unnerving.
Those especially familiar with the book or any of its faithful adaptations will be delighted by the ways that the production recontextualizes scenes without altering much of Lewis Carroll's dialogue. It's a lot of fun to see how easily the Mad Hatter's tea party becomes a frat boy beer fest; Woodbury, less convincing in her later turn as the Queen of Hearts, here makes the booze infused tea party come to life as a hard partying Dormouse. A filmed sequence screened in the rafters of the theater, which transforms Alice's exchange with the Caterpillar into a psychiatric interview ("Who are you?"), is an especially terrific choice, as obvious as it is uncanny. Scranton is pitch perfect as an obfuscating analyst/caterpillar while Rivera's Alice taps into reserves of self-confidence even as her adventures leave her riddled with doubt. As the production nears its end, the adaptation takes more extreme, darker turns. Greiss is disturbing as the pitifully doddering mock turtle; so is Michael-David Gordon as the vulnerable knave of hearts caught in an unjust trial. In the courtroom, we see Alice's quest for order become more crucial than a trivial numbers game, a quest which the Irondale Ensemble, skilled in adaptation, neither sends up nor solves.
Alice in Wonderland is a story of shifting perspectives. Alice grows both larger and smaller during her odyssey in Wonderland, gaining new points of view central to the archetypal coming of age story. By making its audience reassemble for each scene, Irondale's alice... prompts the audience to shift its points of view along with the title character's. Even the filmed segment relies heavily on shifting camera angles as a source of both comedy and disquiet. The production as a whole is as dizzying as it is insightful. Don't miss it.