December 16, 2005
Alice in our Wonderland
How does artistic expression fit into a capitalist society? Does an artist (visual, performance, literary) sacrifice integrity when pursuing abundant financial reimbursement for work?
The play Painted Alice by William Donnelly, the Unicorn Theatre's present offering, explores these issues by taking the central character, Alice, on a shamanic journey. With a heavy dose of homage to Lewis Carroll, Donnelly frames his play with a classic ABA form: reality, fantasy, reality.
We meet Alice (Alyson Schacherer), a visual artist behind on a commission. The impatient client, Parker (Teri Adams), passive-aggressively confronts Alice; she wants the painting now. Parker also announces the bizarre suicide of an artist friend of Alice's, Carol. Carol lost interest in living because of things like a cold sore and a litter box in need of changing, and did herself in by crawling into a clothes drier. Donnelly takes a zany spin on the reality with which he frames his play. Alice bickers with her companion Dinah (Katie Gilchrist) over integrity and the conflict between making art for money and creating for art's sake.
Alice steps into a Wonderland full of parables and archetypes inspired by the obstacles and allure of the visual artist's world. Rather than chasing a rabbit into a hole in the ground or passing through a looking glass, Alice steps into her own canvas. She encounters an odd array of circumstances and characters, most of which bear striking resemblance to the creations of Lewis Carroll. She spies a small door that cleverly pops out of the stage floor, too small for her to pass through standing, so she attempts to crawl through. She meets identical twins, both visual artists, clad by Costume Designer Jennifer Myers-Ecton in puffy pink smocks, the hallucinatory Alice's version of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. One twin receives critical acclaim but makes no money; the other makes money but gets panned by reviewers. They hold up their respective artistic creations, two paintings that are exact mirror reflections of each other. Adams and Gilchrist play the twins; all the actors with the exception of Schacherer take on multiple roles.
She attends a fantasy nightclub and engages in erudite repartee with pretentious, black-clad artists (Nathan Darrow, Adams and Gilchirst), complete with sunglasses and high-maintenance cell phones. With Alice sitting at a table sharing baffling exchanges over beverages, the scene becomes Donnelly's answer to the Mad Tea Party. Alice attempts to court a potential sponsor, a loud, wealthy, powerful woman (Adams) wearing bright red. Alice has to catch her on the golf course. Immediately, the Queen of Hearts comes to mind, playing croquet with live flamingos for mallets (Adams works with actual golf clubs). The outlandish characters conclude Alice's journey by putting her on trial. Alice returns to reality transformed, with clear decisions about her place in life and art.
Donnelly chose to name Alice's lover "Dinah;" Carroll's Alice has a cat named Dinah. Alice the younger often thinks of her throughout her Wonderland adventures. The Unicorn production echoes this through the use of video, designed by Jeffrey Cady. As Alice explores alternate reality, she repeatedly turns to the painting-canvas-turned-video-monitor and sees Dinah. Cady's videography becomes an additional character in the play. The images hypnotize and haunt. He missed, however, an opportunity to suggest a Cheshire Cat by having a character on the screen disappear except for a smile. With all the effects he created on the screen, one grin without a face seems possible.
Carroll's Alice meets no one of congruence. All of the characters in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass from the White Rabbit to Mock Turtle barely recognize Alice's presence. Most of Donnelly's characters have little regard for Alice, but she does make encounters with characters that show awareness and concern for Alice. She meets Carol (the name choice resonates, played by Adams in white strings of Christmas lights) post-mortem who helps Alice understand. She also has a rather real dyad with a successful artist (Darrow) whom, in the reality segment of the play, she saw getting intimate with Dinah.
The production staff with Director Joseph Price in the lead took on an enormous challenge just in logistics. Some of the costume changes happen almost by magic. Set Designer Gary Mosby added two tracks on the stage to move chairs and other pieces on and off, and created walls that not only open and close but spin.
Schacherer brings a subdued presence to a chaotic stage. She, like the little girl Alice of the 19th century, walks from encounter to experience, somehow oblivious to the supernatural absurdity around her, other than an occasional eruption of frustration. But her outbursts come from the insanity of the various beings around her or from her own aggravation with the artist's plight, not from being thrown into an alternate reality.
Painted Alice plays under two hours in length. Donnelly and/or the production staff included an unnecessary intermission. The action of the story takes on one complete arc that defies interruption.
Painted Alice runs until Dec. 31. Call 816-531-7529 for tickets or visit www.unicorntheatre.org
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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