nytheatre.com review by Charles C Bales
August 19, 2012
Phantomwise by Oren Stevens recounts the personal history of Alice Pleasance Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In the summer of 1862 when Alice was 10 years old, she and two of her sisters went on a boating expedition with family friend Charles Dodgson, who regaled them with fantastical tales of anthropomorphic creatures, many of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Liddell’s own family and friends.
Completely entranced by the story, Alice begged Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford where Alice’s father was dean, to write it down. He published the adventures of the little girl named Alice who follows a white rabbit down its hole to Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It became a classic of children’s literature.
The enchanting Phantomwise layers events from Liddell’s life in Victorian England with bits from Carroll’s famous novels, as a talented cast of actors switch in and out of character as themselves and their fictional counterparts. Stuttering Do- Do- Dodgson becomes the Dodo; strict mother Lorina, the Queen of Hearts; little sister Edith, the Eaglet; Reverend Robinson Duckworth, the Duck. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition that makes for fascinating theater.
The precocious Alice never wants to grow up, much like Peter Pan. As portrayed by the excellent Maia Collier, Alice morphs from imagination-starved child to proper young lady to dignified old woman, as shown through simple changes in costume and physicality. Throughout her life, Alice lives in the shadow of the story written especially for her.
Running a taut 110 minutes with one intermission, Phantomwise covers a lot of territory, including a number of funny Wonderland recreations, a deliciously absurd Jabberwocky scene, and many dramatic peeks into Liddell family dynamics revolving around the unusual friendship between Alice and the much older Dodgson, which hints at impropriety.
As deftly directed by Avital Shira with clockwork efficiency, the action of the play is contained on the stage of the Connelly Theater between two rows of chairs, stage left and stage right. Onstage at all times, the performers use these chairs and a minimum of props to create various settings. Phantomwise occurs as if in its own wonderland, where dreams and reality intertwine.
Taking its title from a line in the acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass that spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” Phantomwise is storytelling — and theater — at its most pure. Following Alice's travails as well as her travels down the rabbit hole is truly a magical adventure.