nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
July 8, 2009
A Wonderland is a marvelously mixed-up trip through an alternate reality by way of the kind of showcase cabaret cafe that you might find anywhere in this town where there are hopeful artists running on the same wheel week after week. It may not be what Lewis Carroll had in mind but this show owes nothing to nobody. It is an inventive production by Anonymous Ensemble, ambitious almost beyond its capabilities with abundant creativity. Take this show on its own terms—it won't give you a choice anyway and these are some darn fine terms.
What starts off as only another non-weekend night at a bar, with the regulars doing their self-showcasing cabarets, quickly takes a turn for the bizarre. Alice (Janelle Lannan, a rock solid presence and voice) is an office worker by day, chanteuse by night. She is belting out her theme song and pattering far more confessional detail than is good for a girl. While not quite finished, she is booted off the stage with a certain drag panache by the stylishly self-assured Blanche du Bunny (Matt Mager) and, protesting, is encouraged to take a little something and be part of their festivities. From there she falls into a world which might possibly involve having her own TV show, if Alice could only figure out what the show is and how to interview a caterpillar. There are elements of the traditional with the Mad Hatter (Josh Hoglund) and the March Hare (Cory Antiel) making their appearances; but it is not exactly linear so don't assume the producer might not also add a Dormouse (Liz Davito). The songs and the shifts in narrative are well grounded in elements of the source, so that even when it could be confusing there are familiar anchors to grab onto.
The show uses the special grace that is the space of the Ohio Theatre well, extending into the far reaches while in the bunny hole and then telescoping back towards us as our reality encroaches on Wonderland.
A Wonderland also has some very good dancers, fantastic costumes (unfortunately uncredited within the program), and moments of circus that fully realize the word "Wonder." But don't be fooled, this wonderland is whimsy with a sharp edge—the hostility is real and there is no knight in shining armor or fairy godmother to swoop in and save Alice. The production, for all its fancy, makes it clear that Alice is on her own in a world that is full of frenemies. The ultimate reveal of that isolation is set up from the top, and that reveal becomes more like a fact of life hitting you in the face than any easily dismissed theme.
In addition to what is happening directly in front of the audience, the entirety is being taped and projected. The projections are being mixed with either special effects or an overlay of images that are being filmed on the sides and can be seen happening while being filmed. With several concurrent events and live taping, there were a few very minor glitches on opening and it speaks to the overwhelming strength of A Wonderland that it did not matter. While the taping does enhance, the main action is sufficiently strong and interesting that nothing stopped simply because a camera went out momentarily. If anything, for me what was least interesting were the lyrics, which hid behind the rock trope and were not nearly as consistently tight as much of the dialogue. But why overly worry that in the face of so much talent?
"You can either sentence yourself to life imprisoned by petty bullshit and bereft of grandeur or you can sentence yourself to a life in a Wonderland where you can always be the you in your mind." – March Hare
Clever, interesting, the Anonymous Ensemble has a lot to be proud of with this cast and they kick off the Ice Factory on a strong note.