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Posts Tagged ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is probably the most enigmatic fantasy tale ever written. Is this 19th century classic an adult fantasy, a children’s story, a political satire, an extended riff of nonsense, a trippy exploration of a child’s mind, an exercise in wordplay, or—Oh, Dinah!—a combination of them all? Critics and readers alike have pondered the fascinating contrast between its seeming facile surface of dreamlike experiences and the darker elements that lurk beneath.

Thus we have a vast array of interpretations on Alice, from stripped-down grade school stagings to Disney’s appropriation to Gregory Maguire’s postmodern tweak (see my recent review of After Alice on this blog). The characters and tropes have been so ingrained into our collective consciousness that it’s hard to conceive of a new approach to Wonderland. Yet Bruce Bierman, an East Bay drama teacher who works with adult actors over 50, has come up with a brilliant take on Carroll: What if the characters in the story are simultaneously elderly people in a memory care unit who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

In writing the script for Wonder, Bierman drew not only from Carroll’s text, but from his own life experience (always a good idea). His father lived with Alzheimer’s for a decade before passing away three years ago, so he’s seen first hand not only the changes experienced by memory care patients, but how they relate to others, and how staff at a memory unit relate to them in turn.

My own mother also struggled with dementia in the few years before her death, and one thing I and others noticed about her is that her personality changed dramatically—so much so, that at times she felt like a different person to us. Every day for her was a struggle to find her identity and the identities of those around her. Bierman wisely chose this struggle to be the driving force behind his play.

Wonder starts out with a group of elderly live-in patients entering a common room for a sing-along. Alice is one them—an old woman, not a child as in Carroll. For the girl Alice, her adventure is a just a dream that vanishes when she wakes up. For the elderly Alice, the adventure has far more weighty implications. While she gains a measure of self-respect and agency at the end, we all know that this is no lighthearted romp for her, that her struggle to find identity will remain. Fortunately, two of the characters—the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat—work at the memory unit and provide her with help along the way.

The other characters she meets in Wonderland—the Dodo, Duchess, March Hare, Dormouse, Mad Hatter, King and Queen of Hearts—are also residents of the memory unit. After an entertaining cast rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s classic song “White Rabbit,” Alice finds herself falling through a hole in her mind. In contrast to the residents, the characters she meets at the bottom of her fall are lively, funny, and—in the case of the Queen—irrational and angry. As the Cheshire Cat puts it, “We’re all mad here.” Alice’s interactions with these people largely follows what happens in Carroll’s story, though out of necessity Bierman’s had to trim quite a bit of Carroll’s packed text. He’s also made a few changes, such as substituting the Queen for the Dormouse in giving a “dry” speech to help Alice and others dry out after being in the Pool of Tears. There are places in the original Alice that go on and on, full of linguistic and mathematical puzzles, that would be out of place in a play.

As in the book, Alice’s primary antagonist is the Queen, who randomly shouts “Off with their heads!” and otherwise behaves quite erratically and ludicrously. Of all the characters, the Queen (in my opinion) most fully embodies a characteristic often found in people with dementia—an uninhibited rage, followed by unpredictable mood swings, including expressions of delight—yes, and even wonder—before lapsing into a silence.

After Alice gets through the trial scene at the end, she returns to the memory unit. I got the sense that, in standing up to the Queen, she has gained some self-respect and sense of agency. Hopefully, that will help her in the days to come.

About Bruce Bierman and Viewpoints:

Bruce’s Viewpoints class at Stagebridge employs concepts developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and directors Anne Bogart (Bruce’s mentor) and Tina Landau. Wonder started as a series of exercises with the over-50 members of Bruce’s class. When his father went into a memory care unit, Bruce began to notice an eerie parallel between Wonderland and his father’s ward. At one point he didn’t want to go on with Wonder, but his class encouraged him to continue with the script, which has undergone a number of changes (as all good scripts must), and eventually that led to an actual stage production.

According to Bruce, at one point he decided that he wasn’t responsible for representing Alzheimer’s and dementia to the world, that he was just going to serve Lewis Carroll, and that this play was his own interpretation of Wonderland. I’d say he does more than just interpret Carroll—this play, and the players who helped bring it to life, adds a depth of meaning that Carroll’s story never had.

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Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.

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I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

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