DON'T ASK ALICE

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is one of the great dream narratives of all time. There's a lot of sense behind the nonsense verse and the bizarre behavior of all those whom Alice meets on her adventure. But then, the life of a dream has a logic of its own.

Unfortunately, the story's dreamy quality does not transfer well to the stage--as the production now playing at the Denver Civic Theatre clearly demonstrates. That's a shame, because a lot of talent and time has been invested in this production--and while there are some bright spots and charming performances, the adaptation by Michael Lancy trivializes an important work of art. Worse yet, the music (also by Lancy) is boring and banal.

In Lancy's version of the story, Alice sits listening to her sister read a story when the White Rabbit scurries by. Alice follows him and falls down the hole in the ground, but when she lands, the story departs from the original. It's difficult to say just what happens, because the whole rest of the play seems to consist of Alice's pointless meandering from character to character. She meets the Cheshire Cat, the Duchess, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter with their Dormouse and, of course, the King and Queen of Hearts. But all references to Alice's change of size are missing, as are some of the most interesting characters. Even the White Rabbit gets short shrift. As Alice moves from encounter to encounter, the changes seem abrupt rather than liquid, the songs superfluous.

Alice did transfer well to the screen in a number of odd, extravagant and eccentric films. Even Disney managed to capture some of the story's magic. But film is a fluid form in which special effects can flow easily into each other, re-creating the look of a dream. The stage, by comparison, is too tied to gravity. The actors move weightily when they need to float. The scenery can't change quickly, and, worst of all, Alice cannot get big and small.

Which makes me wonder: Why try to transform such resistant material into a form that doesn't suit it? Why take the classic work of another author and banalize it rather than write your own story? The classics may be in the public domain, but surely those who love them don't want to see them diminished. And if the writer doesn't love the work as it was written, why bother to rip it off?

The efforts of those devoted to children's theater often go unappreciated. There are several fine performances in this production, despite the flawed script. Jim Hitzke makes a marvelous, exotic Caterpillar. He seems to take the effort seriously and layers his character with sarcastic wit. James M. Sharp as the Mad Hatter is delightfully frayed at the edges, playing the part as a kind of spacey intellectual; his performance is smart, centered and easy. Regina Kolbeck's nasty Queen of Hearts is another piece of exuberant silliness that works well. Lauren Dennis, who plays Alice, has a sweet voice and presence. But the canned music is too loud for her little frame, and it frequently muffles her.

As the Duchess tells Alice, "Everything's got a moral if only you can find it." The trouble is, the Duchess never gets the morals right. Neither does this playwright.

 
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