Almost everyone knows of Lewis Car-roll and his fictional Alice. Most people have read (or seen) Alice's hysterical and nonsensical adventures in the fantastical world of Wonderland, where rabbits carry pocket watches, caterpillars puff on hookahs and nibbling cake will make a person grow to nine feet tall.
Less familiar are the real Alice Liddell, a privileged child of the Victorian era for whom the stories were originally written, and Charles Dodgson, a mathematics professor and pioneer of British photography who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
For the Toronto-based and Halifax-connected Stranger Theatre, writing a play about the relationship of the mysterious and awkward Charles Dodgson to both the storybook Alice and the flesh-and-blood Alice Liddell, was the perfect way to explore multiple topics—everything from the nature of creation to the changing definition and role of the child—that were important historically, and are still important today.
The play, entitled And What Alice Found There, brings to life Carroll's writing of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the real Alice, and the world in which they lived. It does this through a highly integrated multimedia approach that includes physical theatre, puppetry, slide images, video, stop-motion animation and even a little tap dancing.
Simone Rosenberg is a graduate of Halifax's NSCAD University and one of the founding members of Stranger Theatre. She and fellow video artist Adrienne Connelly designed the video element of the play to be an integrated aspect of the performance, rather than a separate entity that would just seem "plastered on."
"The multimedia format is well-suited to the surreal qualities of the stories. It creates different dimensions and allows for an extremely fantastical element," says Rosenberg, who is also one of the play's three Alices. "Also, we were interested in the didactic quality of the slide projector, and how it could help to tell the story of the birth of photography, scientific discovery and colonization."
In the show, Charles Dodgson is portrayed by a puppet, created by the play's director Kate Cayley (a graduate of the University of King's College) and puppeteer Lea Ambros (also a King's grad), two more of the company's founding members. The puppet is constructed from wood, polymer clay, springs and some hidden duct tape, and is operated by three people.
"We thought it was important use a puppet for Charles Dodgson," Ambros explains during a phone call from Toronto. "It was an interesting way to turn author and subject around, by making the author the one who is manipulated."
Stranger Theatre was formed in 2001 as an explicitly feminist theatre company, but has since branched out in other directions, welcoming male performers. However, And What Alice Found There is a callback to the days when the company's work was created and performed solely by women.
"This play had a different energy for us," says Cayley, also calling from Toronto. "But whether that was because of our gender or just our individual personalities, I'm not sure. But we did think the all-female cast put a neat spin on things, in that both the character of Lewis Carroll and Alice's recollections of him are voiced by women."
Cayley says she thinks people will find the play enchanting. "It really is a beautiful story. It's gone through a vast number of changes during the creation process, but I think what we've ended up with is really fast, bright and interesting."
Rosenberg wants people to know that And What Alice Found There offers a one-of-a-kind theatre experience. "The show is probably unlike any other play people have seen," she said. "It's not simply an Alice in Wonderland product. It's a unique, layered piece that takes you through history lessons, through the wonderful, fantastical Alice stories and through Alice and Lewis's complicated relationship."
Halifax is the last stop on a tour that has taken the play to Toronto, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Istanbul. "We've really loved this show and we're really excited to come back to Halifax," says Ambros.
And What Alice Found There at North Street Church, 5657 North, November 9 to 11, 8pm, $15/$10 (unwaged, students, seniors), 431-5202.