Review: Alice In Wonderland makes sense of our upside-down world

ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Fiona Sauder, Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko (Bad Hats Theatre/Soulpepper). Streaming until April 18. $20 (household), $50 (classroom). Rating: NNNNN

How can we make sense of what’s going on in the world right now? Bad Hats Theatre presents as good a solution as any with its whimsical, imaginative and profound new musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s absurdist classic Alice In Wonderland. 

The company’s Dora Award-winning Peter Pan has become a seasonal favourite at Soulpepper. And this entertaining show, which feels both of its time and timeless, should enjoy the same fate. I can’t wait to see it performed live when things return to normal.

Contemporary feel

Adapted by Fiona Sauder, with songs by Life In A Box’s talented Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko, this new take captures the essence of Carroll’s tale but with a tone and presentation that feel totally contemporary. 

Alice (Tess Benger) is a restless, inquisitive young student who continually interrupts her class with questions. In a math problem, when she’s told that a train that was supposed to arrive at 1 pm is delayed by 55 minutes, she asks her teacher (Matt Pilipiak) why it’s late. When she looks out the window, she sees clouds in the shapes of a turtle, a mouse and a rabbit. 

Soon enough, Alice sees an actual rabbit (Pilipiak), who, like that train, is late. And before we know it she gets swept up in a tale about moving forward while getting nowhere – a feeling that should be familiar to those trying to follow the province’s COVID-19 rules all while nothing seems to be improving.

Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland has received countless adaptations. What’s so brilliant about Sauder’s version is how she makes you rethink the story’s elements so themes like transformation, worry over the future and adult trivialities feel fresh.

Chess motif

While Sauder hasn’t completely dispensed with the story’s game of croquet, she’s added a clever chess motif that’s far more relatable to an all-ages audience that’s seen The Queen’s Gambit. Chess has also given director Sue Miner and lighting designer Logan Raju Cracknell some ideas about using squares of light to create a sense of movement.

Sauder and Doak make a fine comic couple, popping up both as the non-sensical Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (outfitted like pilots in Ming Wong’s costumes) and as two tea party patrons chit-chatting about nothing.

Pilipiak captures the high-strung essence of his Rabbit without making him into a caricature (in a nice touch his teacher was also late to class), while Jacob MacInnis transforms the Caterpillar into an exquisite, gentle creature full of potential and possibilities.

As for the songs, they’re just as effective, ranging from a rap number for the Red Queen (Vanessa Sears, proving she’d make an amazing Angelica Schuyler) to a song about the alphabet that is guaranteed to enchant and delight children of all ages.

Camera adds to experience

This pre-taped version of the show – Robert Metcalfe and Links Live Media are credited as stream producer – adds to the experience. In the earlier parts, the camera remains fairly static, giving us an uninterrupted, steady view of the stage at the Young Centre. But once Alice goes down her metaphorical rabbit hole, things become more interesting. The way Metcalfe and Miner use perspective to show Alice’s sudden growth spurts, for instance, is ingenious.

At such a dangerous and uncertain time, the show’s message about asking questions and not pretending to know all the answers is crucial. The premier and his team of clowns could learn a thing or two from Alice.


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