Yes, a high time to be had. All you need to do is follow the simple directions; “eat me”; then “drink me.” And whoosh, with music building into powerful, echoing crescendos, I found myself swirling into tangled nonsense and colorful adventures galore just down a tight rabbit hole through a barely visible door. All this takes place in Crystal City with Synetic Theater’s own singular take on a dialogue-rich and a visually stunning Alice in Wonderland.
With plenty of Lewis Carroll’s original un-logic intact, Synetic’s Alice in Wonderland written by Lloyd Rose, a one-time theater critic for The Washington Post, has invented a savory, dark chocolate toffee confection with plenty of rewarding sweetened morsels. It is an inverted, roguish world that fed my head quite satisfactorily. No need to dig out a dog-eared Annotated Alice, or listen to a scratchy vinyl of Surrealistic Pillow with Grace Slick’s mind-altering version of White Rabbit or even locate my daughter’s long ago copy of Robert Sabuda’s pop-up Alice to be in the mood.
Playwright Rose and the talented Synetic folk have concocted a fertile diversion into Carroll’s timeless, and now 150 years young, Alice. In his program notes, Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s Founding Artistic Director, provided a taste of what to expect. Synetic is “not focused on the sunniness and delight of childhood.” Tsikurishvili described the “decided darkness” he found in the Wonderland characters. To him, they “seem intent on either manipulating, trapping, confusing or abusing her [Alice].” This is clearly not a Disney animated version, indeed.
So, let’s start with Daniel Pinha’s gymnasium-like set design. It is a visual that greets patrons as they enter the theater; a very jumbled underground world. There are hanging rope-like roots in disarray, bits-and-pieces of what are usually out-of-sight, animal paths and burrows melded with untidy, fancifully sculpted objects later put to many a good use. With fog floating in at critical times, overall there is the visual and mental impact of being in a topsy-turvy, confused nether world. Several rows of chairs at audience left and right have also been removed from the usual proscenium stage to add two play spaces separate from the main-stage’s underground world. One play area includes many small dolls; some cute and adorable, while others are cute in-their-own flip-flopped way.
We meet Alice (an effervescent, animated, wide-eyed Kathy Gordon), her loving, soft-spoken mother (Tori Bertocci in white outfit) and a fiendish, rough speaking new governess (Ranata Veberyte Loman in goth-black attire) who tells Alice a puzzling Jabberwalky story. As Alice falls asleep and then “awakens,” a new world opens up. A world that she unearths while following a jumpy White Rabbit with a large necklace-like timepiece (Bertocci again). Alice begins a dreamy journey to discover herself in a world with its own rules and logic. Her trek includes a meet-up with an enigmatic, smiling Cheshire Cat (Alex Mills with a bright presence and limber catlike acrobatic movements).
From these modest beginnings come twelve scenes (chapters) of Alice’s journey into her Wonderland. Along the way Alice meets many a fanciful character. These include the likes of all an expressionistic, off-center Mad Hatter (Dallas Tolentino), a nervous dormouse (Zana Gankhuyag), the confounding doppelgangers Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Augustin Beall and Thomas Beheler), a with-reason, fearful ballerina Dodo (Eliza Smith), a kooky, nervous March Hare (Justin Bell), along with a smotth-talking “suck-up” King of Hearts (Bell again) and the impulsive, heartless Queen of Hearts (Veberyte Loman again). And, as two very vividly brought-to-life comic characters who lighten and brighten the production, is Vato Tsikurishvili. He plays a hookah-smokin’ Caterpillar and then a very superior Humpty Dumpty who knows less than he thinks he does and pays a big price for his snooty affect.
Some of Alice’s twelve scenes and some of the numerous characters were more memorable than others. Some spoken dialogue better registered with me than others. At times it felt like a striking wave moving between a high points and then a trough always in motion, with motion being the key. Then again, I can ask myself, how could child-like absurdity that is mocking mainstream values be anything else?
If you know Alice the adaptation doesn’t overlook lines such as “Off with her head!”; “You are just a pack of cards”; and a personal favorite: “We are all mad here.” A key line for this Synetic production is asked of Alice not long into her trip: “And who are you?”; with the production providing Alice the opportunity to learn who she is.
Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili has her minions, including some uncredited ensemble members, move and cavort terrifically helter-skelter as the chase one another about the stage. A caterpillar curvy line dance composed of a five-actor caterpillar was a sinuous hoot. The tea-party scene was well-timed pushing-and-shoving to a fare-thee-well. A ballerina dance by Eliza Smith was a classic, classy Swan Lake turn.
The proceedings were well-animated with the original work of Sound Editor and Resident Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze. He provided a vivacious, driving score appropriate for each of the twelve scenes. Thomas Sowers’ sound and Colin K. Bills’ lighting created a visually and aurally colorful underground world with sweeps of light as well as well-placed rope-lighting, along with a simply lovely touch with blue LED lights forming flowing drops of tears. There were a plenitude of well-placed, well-used props from Props Master Jason Alpern.
Not enough can be said about Kendra Rai’s costume design. From Alice’s changeable white pinafore, a spiffy latex wearing Queen of Hearts with a skirt having heads and faces as a design element, to cats, rabbits, a rotund egg and plenty more, the costumes were a delightful blur that identified each character well to a T.
I can’t resist this. As a very special Queen from my own by-gone days sang and taught me, “Remember what the dormouse said, feed your head, feed your head.” Off I go down stairs to place a scratchy well-used piece of vinyl on a turntable.
Alice in Wonderland is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival of Washington, DC. You don’t have to remember or even know Alice in Wonderland to be engrossed by Synetic’s visually jaw-dropping take on a 150 year-old classic.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Alice in Wonderland plays through November 8, 2015 at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Arlington, VA (At the Crystal City Metro). For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.
The production is suitable for children aged 9 and up. There are moments that younger children may find frightening.