Alice the Musical at Theatre Inconnu November 30-December 20, 2014. A review.

Alice the Musica at Theatre Inconnu November 30-December 20, 2014. A review.

Alice by Tom Waits, Paul Schmidt, Kathleen Brennan and Robert Wilson, currently at Theatre Inconnu (November 30-December 14, 2014) is a hallucinating and troubling journey into the relationship between Charles Dodgson (Graham Roebuck) and the young girl (Melissa Blank) who inspired his books—the children’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

In this version, the author and mathematician is a conflicted man—prone to headaches—who yearns to stop time while revelling in the intricate ways language can be twisted to do ones bidding.

ALICE the musical Theatre Inconnu December 2014Graham Roebuck (White Rabbit), Donna Williams (Dutchess) and Melissa Blank (Alice). Photo provided.

The music is discordant, with keening violins, and lyrics that confront. Set amid imaginative and detailed story-book illustrations (projection design Robert Randall) used for scenery, the effect is disturbing rather than comforting.

The relationship between the stories, music and design is intriguing—as much as the music forces the audience to sit up and pay attention, the design elements only further the impression, while the stories—familiar episodes from the books—provide the through line.

The music is challenging—often comprised of gravely lows and high pitched refrains that stretch the vocal abilities of the actors in prodigious fashion.  Waits’ fans will not be disappointed—this is definitely the standard fare of musical theatre. The songs display  outstanding variety—cheery ditties, wild laments, quiet ballads. Some highlights were Cam Culham (in the jazzy number Table Top Joe), Wendy Cornock, Marina Legace and Reese Nielsen in Flower’s Grave, Graham Roebuck in the lament Poor Edward, and I’m Still Here with Melissa Blank.  The Party on High Street (Brin Porter, Travis Charuk, Nick Houghton/Taylor Charles) led by Music Director Donna Williams (who also played the Dutchess and Tweedle Dee) had immense fun with the music, covering all the tunes with gusto.

The artists of Theatre Inconnu, due to tight spaces and budget restrictions, are geniuses as working magic by unusual means—Shayna Ward employs transparent plastic (imprinted with words) as over-garments for both Dodgson and Alice, and coloured plastic elsewhere for the costumes of the characters in the stories.  The effect is sumptuous and imposing, providing real heft along with a touch of whimsy.

Director Clayton Jevne plays up the absurdist elements in the stories—“off with her head” shouts the Red Queen while in the kitchen the Cook hurls plates at Alice—and yet, these are the elements that serve as guideposts in the creative imaginings of the musical’s authors.  Jaberwocky (Cam Culham, Marina Legace, Reese Nielsen) is an inspired a cappella rendition of the nonsense poem that completely unhinges us with its ability to create a narrative. Accompanied by modern dance moves from the actors it definitely left an impression.

Back and forth—in time, space and music—into the minds of Dodgson then, and Alice then and now—the audience is carried on a journey of reminiscent and retribution that has no real resolution.

“Everything you can think of is true” says Waits, and I can’t help wondering exactly what he (and his collaborators) and Dodgson are trying to tell us.  There’s an aura of deep mystery, a sense that one could disappear down the rabbit hole of this story, and music, forever without ever finding an explanation or reason.

Alice takes the stage in the final moments (I’m Still Here), now an adult and we are left to wonder at the impact on her life of those years spent with the author. Dodgson made time stand still with his photography, but Alice marched on—towards adulthood.
It’s not often that I come home after the theatre to spend hours on the internet, investigating song lyrics, theatrical journals and archives—Alice is a compelling production that will leave you wanting to know more—not only about its creators, but also about the original characters and even, the stories in the books—and is definitely a show you could easily see twice without even beginning to touch on its meaning.
It’s been quite the year in theatre for Alice—the Stratford Festival revived James Reaney’s adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre is currently running Alice vs Wonderland, the Brendan Shea “re-mix” sure to be popular with teens and tweens,  and in February, Kaleidoscope Theatre stages a version of Alice that is “a family-friendly light hearted play appropriate for ages 3+”.
It’s definitely proof that the source material is rich and dense—each version has something to recommend it to audiences. Theatre Inconnu’s rendition will please adults who want to venture into uncharted territory.  Alice is a hidden treasure that has been largely un-staged since its earlier incarnation in 1992; in fact, this is the Canadian premier.  Audiences owe a debt of gratitude to Clayton Jevne, the company’s artistic director, for continuing to search far and wide for work that challenges.

Theatre Inconnu presents the Canadian Premiere of:

Alice, the Musical—by Tom Waits, co-developed with Kathleen Brennan, Paul Schmidt and Robert Wilson

Directed by Clayton Jevne, musical direction by Donna Williams, choreography by Stephanie Geehan, starring Melissa Blank as Alice, production design by Robert Randall, musical accompaniment by The Party on High Street.

November 30-December 20, 2014
Theatre Inconnu, at the Little Fernwood Hall1923 Fernwood Road
Tickets: $14 / $10 Students, Seniors, and the unwaged available through TicketRocket.
Nov 30 – Preview is $7
Tuesday, Dec 9 is Pay-What-You-Wish admission

Further reading:

Lyrics from the album Alice

Alice, once dubbed “the lost Tom Waits masterpiece” by the press, was originally done as an avant-garde opera directed by Robert Wilson for Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre in the winter of 1992. Alice was based loosely on Lewis Carroll’s obsession with young Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired his Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. Working with wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, they wrote fifteen songs for the Wilson opera in the summer of 1992. The Thalia performed “Alice” for eighteen months, with an eclectic orchestra of Waits’ design. A devastatingly beautiful atmosphere made of sorrow and reverie, insanity and resignation, rises like a mist in Alice. It’s a lyrical melancholia, a feeling that creeps in on the arms of Stroh violins and unabashed poetry. These are songs to fall into, and sometimes, to keep falling. There are fragile, haunted musings, and laments, mad ruminations, and tales of unrequited love and anthems from beyond the grave. “Alice,” said Waits, “is adult songs for children, or children’s songs for adults. It’s a maelstrom or fever-dream, a tone poem, with torch songs and waltzes…an odyssey in dream logic and nonsense.”

Although completely un-connected to the musical, the novel, Still She Haunts Me by Katie Riophe, about the relationship between Dodgson and Alice Liddell, will be interesting to some. It’s available at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Disclaimer: I was graciously provided with a complimentary ticket to Alice.

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