A view of theater in Richmond, VA, and occasionally other places too.
Friday, August 25, 2017
A Dazzling Drop Down the Rabbit Hole
I took in an unusual doubleheader last night:
an utterly charming performance of the Firehouse/TheatreLab co-pro “Alice: A
New Musical” and a thoroughly dispiriting final episode in the Netflix series,
“Marvel’s The Defenders.” The two were near mirror images: the former was
surprising, delightful, and satisfying; the latter was predictable, dull, and
disappointing. Lucky for me, the positive power of “Alice” was stronger than
the suckitude of “The Defenders” so the night was a net boost to my spirits.
First, to dispatch with this Marvel
monstronsity: my ire is fueled largely by my fondness for the antecedents. I
loved Jessica Jones and Luke Cage -- both bold skews on the standard superhero
dreck – and really liked most of Daredevil’s two seasons. (I’m not a completist
so I left Iron Fist alone based on its critical reception.) Defenders
diminished both Jones and Cage and, while it was fun to see Sigourney Weaver as
the big bad, nothing was bold or imaginative about this mash-up. Secret, spooky
organization with world-threatening evil plan – check; heroes thrown together
uneasily into a ragtag team with much internal conflict – check; lots of nearly
random fighting that made little sense and, worse, mostly has no real impact –
check. And OMFG that ending. I won’t spoil anything but I will draw the
comparison that it’s actually worse than the ending to “Batman v Superman,” and
that’s pretty bad.
So: turning to the bright side, how about that
“Alice?” The show’s been selling out and extended and for damn good reason.
Director Adam Ferguson has assembled a cast of stunning talent and put them to
work in service of a joyful-but-not-without-angst take on the classic
Wonderland adventure. There are many aspects of Ferguson’s work to laud: from a
set (also by Ferguson) that makes great use of the nooks and crannies in TheatreLab’s
Basement venue to the clever, thoughtful scenic transitions that never impede
the action. How happy many theatergoers would be if directors paid more
attention to cutting the momentum-killing time expended on scene transitions.
I could go on about the production but, while
still enjoying freedom from the writing-for-publication straightjacket, I’d
rather recognize each performer of this uniformly winning cast. Starting from
the bottom as listed in the program:
Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge as White Rabbit: Hers
is the first character from “Wonderland” that wanders into Alice’s life and Dandridge
provides a perfect introduction to this alternative reality. Anxious without
being manic, arch without being angry, and moving with a jaunty springiness
reflecting her skill as a dancer, Dandridge leads Alice down the rabbit hole in
a way that certainly anyone would follow. Her renown as a choreographer has
been growing, but did everyone else know she could sing and act so well, too?
Clearly, Ferguson did and he made a great choice casting her.
Anne Michelle Forbes as Duchess/Dormouse:
With appearances in 6 significant productions in the last year or so, Ms.
Forbes has become a welcome new staple on the local stage scene. Her Duchess is
a deep dive into the wackadoodle mentality of Wonderland, childishly delighted
one moment, dangerously enraged the next. Forbes makes these transitions as
quickly and easily as donning and doffing a baseball cap, a testament to her
still-burgeoning acting chops.
Maggie Bavolack as Tweedle Dum/Caterpillar:
There are few comedians who generate laughs as easily and deftly as Bavolack. When
she appears with her entourage as the Caterpillar, the audience is giggling
before she says her first line. Her crying baby elicits howls without requiring
any dialogue. From what I hear, the Tweedle brothers were going to be played by
men and that would have robbed Richmond of the comic stylings of Bavolack and
Hindman, a team that could do a “Dumb and Dumber”-style road show that would
surely surpass the Carrey/Daniels duo in hilarity.
Rachel Hindman as Tweedle Dee/Mouse: A good
slice of Hindman’s power onstage has to do with her extraordinary eyes – wide,
far-searching eyes that infuse her seafaring mouse character with a look of
nomadic fervor and just a bit of out-in-the-sun-too-long madness. Hindman was
impressive as St Jimmy in Ferguson’s American Idiot last summer and she’s no
less impressive here.
Mallory Keene as March Hare/Cook: Ms. Keene
gets fewer chances to stand out as others in this exceptional cast but she
makes good use of the times she gets. Her pepper-wielding Cook makes a fine
foil for Forbes’s Duchess and she and Sneed partner for a fabulously nutty tea
party. I look forward to the next chance to see her shine.
Caitlin Sneed as Mad Hatter/Girl with the
Cat/Chesire Cat/Dinah: I simply couldn’t take my eyes off Sneed almost every
scene she was in. There are actors that seem effortlessly confident and
self-possessed on stage – actors who never seem to be consciously “acting” –
and that is certainly Sneed. Not to mention a soaring, powerhouse voice that
starts the show with a clear signal that there are some capital V voices at
work in this production.
Rachel Dilliplane as Sister/Frog-Footman: A
bit of an unsung hero in this piece, Dilliplane plays some of the more reserved
characters in “Alice” but does so in a fully realized way. Her recurring
appearance as Alice’s sister, in particular, establishes a reassuring energy
that acts as a reminder that the real world that Alice may return to will
welcome her back with love.
Kelsey Cordrey as Mother/Queen of Hearts: In
another actor’s hands, the Queen of Hearts could have been a cartoon-y
villainess. But in creating a compelling Mother/Queen duelism, Cordrey makes us
feel empathy, even affection, for the big bad in this story and her song to
Alice at the ending is a true heart-tugger.
Grey Garrett as the White Queen: At this
point, I’ve run out of adequate adjectives to do justice to Garrett in this
role. So much of what she does here is unspoken, her quiet curious spying on
Alice’s progress, and the sweet melancholy she brings to their ultimate
interactions. From the beginning, you can sense a longing for a true companion
in Alice and a sadness in her knowing that their time together will be so
brief. Garrett adds this to a growing list of powerful performances where she
commands attention in the most unassuming way, a talent I don’t know if they
teach in acting school.
Rachel Marrs as Alice: It’s not easy playing
an adolescent. Many actors portray them as sullen angst buckets or as bratty
grown-up 2-year olds or sometimes as overly prescient empaths. Marrs captures
the wonder and innocence without making Alice too childlike, and the budding
intelligence and self-assertion without making her a punk. She serves as a
delightful tour guide of the alternate reality Ferguson has created and a
winning protagonist that this father-of-daughters was rooting for the whole
That’s a lot of words about
“Alice,” but here is a more simple, concise summation: I would rather see 10
more fights between the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee from this production than I
would even 1 more fight between Daredevil and Elecktra from “The Defenders.”