One cannot take on this version of Alice in Wonderland without first understanding its origins from the Manhattan Project in 1970 under the direction of Andre Gregory. Gregory was born in 1934 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents and came to the United States on the cusp of World War II. He is perhaps most famous for being both actor and subject of the 1981 film “My Dinner With Andre,” but at the height of his career, he was considered a theatrical genius with his avant-garde productions developed through ensemble collaboration. The most celebrated of which is the script you’ll see the weekend of March 24 at Imagination Stage.
The Manhattan Project’s Alice in Wonderland was created through hours of improvisation and actor play, taking the story we all know and transforming it for the stage. In fact, the word transformation saturates every part of this script in both execution and story. The original actors used only tables and chairs for their production; the rest of the story was created by the actors themselves. Although we have significantly more actors on our stage than the seven members of the original company, we’ve maintained that concept of transformation as we incorporate the mediums of dance, physical theatre, and ensemble style performance. For us, transformation is present even with regards to our actual stage, as we perform and utilize scenery designed for a completely different show.
As with any adaptation, the author or director must have a compelling reason for transforming the original source material. When I re-read the original book by Lewis Carroll, I was struck at how often Alice’s reactions to the crazy world of Wonderland commented on what was or was not “proper” or who had correct or incorrect “manners.” It was through that lens that she judged what was and wasn’t normal. At the end of the book, Alice awakes and breathes a sigh of relief at it all being just a dream, and she leaves able to celebrate childhood and the play and joy that comprise that part of one’s life. The Manhattan Project’s version takes a much darker path, particularly when depicting what is or isn’t normal. It isn’t just that people lack decorum or are impolite; the madness that Lewis so often references is given a much more literal interpretation as what is considered normal is pulled into grave question.
Interestingly, Gregory left the United States in the late 70’s citing what he felt was a trend towards fascism in the United States. And just as, I venture to guess, the tumultuous issues of his time (those of Watergate and the Vietnam War) influenced Gregory in 1970, so have the politically charged themes of the last year influenced ours. Alice wakes up in a world she no longer recognizes, one that in no way feels normal. The words “not real” permeate our show from beginning to end. As Alice progresses deeper into her journey, nothing she thought she knew makes sense anymore. But does she get to simply awake from this nightmare? What if it wasn’t a dream at all? What if she does wake up and the world still doesn’t make sense?
Any theatre company who takes on Andre Gregory’s version of this story does so knowing the ambition it requires, and the actors of the IStage Performance Ensemble have proven themselves to be up to the task. In my mind, every one of them through this rehearsal process has transformed from a student actor to a professional one. Their physical strength, their courage, and their insistence and persistence in defining the objectives and motivations of these truly mad characters have continually impressed me and the rest of the artistic team. This production, evoking the spirit of the original, has been a true collaboration – between directors, choreographer, actors, and designers. The journey to create this nightmare has been anything but, and I’m delighted and proud to share it with the Imagination Stage audience.
Nikki Kaplan, Director