Alice in Wonderland

A Queer Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Prohibition-era speakeasies in New York City may not seem like kindred worlds, but Danny Ashkenasi blends them together in his new musical Speakeasy: John & Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland. Indeed, both Carroll’s wonderland and Ashkenasi’s queer underworld in Speakeasy are ruled by chaos, intoxication, and frenzy. For better and for worse, director Lisa Moira’s production of this new musical is similarly chaotic; but in spite of technical glitches and some awkward performance moments, the cast of Speakeasy offer some sparkling moments of musical theater.

The standout performances in Speakeasy often offset the production's technical creaks. Kayleigh Shuler as Jane and Matias Polar as John are the heartbeat of the show; they are the flawless young lovers, never missing a note or a cue. As Jane’s best friend, hooch-maker, and possible extramarital love interest, the fiery Bevin Bell-Hall charms the room as Roberta White. The characters of Duchess Bentley (Camille Atkinson) and Julian Carnation (Tim Connell) represent the struggles of Julian Eltinge and Gladys Bentley, queer denizens of Prohibition-era New York City. Atkinson and Connell portray their gender-bending historical characters with sensitivity and humor. 

Finally, absolutely knocking the Ziegfeld-girl aesthetic out of the park are Alice Radice and Anne Bragg as Dora and DeeDee Tweedle. Just try to keep from smiling as Radice and Bragg shuffle around the stage in their blonde bobs and lobster-claw hands. With their stellar comic, dance and musical skills, this vaudeville duo steals the show.

One moment of great synergy in Speakeasy is the song “All Hail the Maidens,” which most of the ensemble performs in drag. While the blocking in many of Speakeasy’s scenes fail to fill the large theater space, J. Alan Hanna’s choreography for “All Hail the Maidens” is exuberant and fun. Torian Brackett, Cody Keown, Sylvester McCracken III, Nick DeFrancesco and Brandon Mellette are gorgeous and fabulous in drag. This moment of the show gives a rare glimpse of the hidden safe spaces made available to queer and non-gender-normative people in Prohibition-era New York. 

Speakeasy tries to do a lot in three hours. It is at once a fantasy adventure, a sexual coming of age, a straight love story, a piece of historical fiction, a gay play and a musical. Songs like “Once I had a Friend,” “Shadow and Light,” and several other numbers probe human sexuality and the tension that exists between status quo and queer desire.  

Speakeasy gives short shrift, however, to the racial tensions that loomed large during this historical era (and in many ways, still loom today). In the song “Harlem,” the all-white ensemble sings of slumming uptown. Slumming was the practice of middle- and upper-class white people venturing into poor neighborhoods of New York to dance, drink, and have sexual encounters with people of color. As the ensemble for “Harlem” cavorts, Brandon Mellette sweeps up their mess upstage (and is the only person of color visible). The song gestures towards a larger issue of racial inequality, and the appropriative politics of slumming; but after “Harlem,” the issue is not further explored. With a bevy of songs exploring queer sexuality, it seems that historical racial tension deserves more attention from a show entitled Speakeasy.  

Finally, as a brand-new musical, Speakeasy needs a polishing of its more technical points. For whatever reason, there are many moments when Bri Malloy as Chet Cheshire is not off book, and his voice gets lost upstage. Furthermore, though Darcy Dunn’s powerful voice as Caroline Chrysalides can compete with the pianist, many other solo voices are lost in the din. Line flubs and costume malfunctions also threaten to take an audience member out of the experience. This is no surprise, because the show is huge in scope—with more than 30 musical numbers and a lot of scenic transitions. Perhaps a scaled-back version of Speakeasy, with fewer plot offshoots and shorter musical numbers, would result in a more polished final product.

This is not to say that Speakeasy lacks charm; it simply lacks polish. Speakeasy satisfies many interests, and might be enjoyed by fans of drag, lovers of Alice in Wonderland, and history buffs interested in Prohibition-era New York. It is a marathon of a show, but contains performance gems that are worth the wait.

Speakeasy: John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland runs through March 13th at Theatre for the New City. Evening performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees are Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $18. Visit TheaterForTheNewCity.net or call SmartTix at 212-868-4444.

 

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Third Rail Projects has a rich production history of placing its audiences on the cusp of collaborative theater. Its dancer-actors are the clicking wheels of a larger machine; they are not themselves the stars of the show, but let an almost spiritual illusion take over that billing. In the long-running hit Then She Fell, experiential theater transcends all of its normal bounds to create just that illusion. The production, which is written, directed, designed and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, is a haunting take on Lewis Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass," and it derives every last morsel of dark lyricism from its source material. 

The show is set on the many-roomed floors of Kingsland Ward, a spooky hospital that looms above a dark, deserted street in Williamsburg. Moans and wails echo out of its windows; indeed, the setting seems more appropriate for a haunted Halloween night, seeing as a gated Lutheran church stands to the hospital's right side. "This is kind of creepy," says an unknowing audience member, as he cranes his neck to see the church's grey bell tower. We are yet to discover Then She Fell's liminal exploits; the thought of pushing boundaries doesn't often occur to the ordinary theatergoer, and the prospect of it seems titillating. 

A 15-member audience is invited into the building and asked to follow only two rules: do not speak unless spoken to, and do not open any closed doors. And once inside, the second rule is quite hard to follow. The building blooms into a magnificently bedecked universe of color, romance and magic. The beauty of each tableau is indescribable; each room is a gloriously fantastical rabbit hole with Alice, the Red Queen and the White Rabbit for guides. But in the files, papers and pictures we locate in these rooms, the audience realizes that Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland (Alice Pleasance Liddell, an 11-year-old English girl) is more a freewheeling obsession. His memories spin us across the many rooms of his mind, where Alice appears in twos and mirrors haunt the reflection of his face and soul. 

Every moment of the two-hour experience is tracked by a mesmerizing soundtrack of organs, piano fortes and cooing violins. Consequently, there is little speech or dialogue, an aspect of the production that surprisingly, doesn't detract from the illusion. Rather, it serves to affirm that happy deception (the sound designer is an inspired Sean Hagerty). Colors that complement this fantasy are used to great effect; the Red Queen is fiery in maroon ribbons, and her dominating dances occur in a blood-red room, while her uncontrolled, despairing dances take place in a pale white room. White is the ultimate antithesis to her existence. The disparate natures of red and white are never so apparent as they are in a stunningly concerted tea-time-fight-dance routine. 

The dance routines are splaying, grandiose things anchored to physical constants: staircases, tea tables,  chairs, and above all, mirrors. Glass mirrors figure in almost every room, reflecting ever fluid, legato movement of the dancer-actors. There is one particularly startling room where two Alices face each other across a mirrorless frame—the one inhabiting the other's image to surreal effect. But the glorying theme of the production is an beautiful, irreverent eroticism. The White Rabbit is unconscionably attractive for a woodland animal, and the Alices sway seductively against the object of their dual affections. Indeed, much of the production has been simplified, during its years-long run, into an eroticized interpretation of a classic children's fantasy story, sacrilegiously so. Then She Fell is more an ode to touchingly choreographed beauty and meaningful audience participation.  

The "don't speak unless spoken to" rule is easy enough to obey; stripping an audience of its inhibitions (such as talking directly to performers) is a difficult goal—one that the Then She Fell company does little to reach. This is through no fault of the performers themselves; entrusting an audience with the burden of collaboration is required of theatrical immersion. But to call upon a viewer to direct a performance is to cater to only a specific type of viewer: the extroverted, collaborative (and even brave) audience member. 

But beyond such trifling observations, the actual interactions with each character are like distilled dreams. Clutching our vials of red and white drinks, we are drawn into an illusion that is designed to be an ever so slightly disturbing, but fantastically inviting one. Their questions, on the many energizing character-interactions, trespass gently on your memories. "When was the last time you dressed up for someone? Have you told someone you didn't love them when maybe you did, just a little bit?"

The last cup of tea, in the last room, at the very end of Then She Fell was accompanied by a little acrostic poem by Carroll—the first words of each line spelled "Alice Pleasance Liddell." It was like one was handed a love note to remember them and the experience by. Here's the bottom line: cancel all dinners, postpone all appointments and make room on schedules for this date with Third Rail Projects. 

Then She Fell runs until March 27 at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns (195 Maujer St. between Bushwick and Graham Aves.) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Admittance is strictly limited to audience members 21 years of age and over; all audience members must bring valid government-issued photo IDs. The performance lasts roughly two hours without intermission. This performance is not recommended for audience members who are not comfortable standing, walking, climbing stairs or being alone. Tickets are $95-$200 and available to purchase at www.thenshefell.comFor more information, call 718-374-5196.

 

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