Curiouser and curiouser

Opening night, with its mix of season subscribers, journalists, theater folk, and assorted other naysayers and wellwishers who were able to scam comp seats, always hums with energy. And the opening-night audience of Dallas Theater Center's Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl that watched as the lights dawned on Riccardo Hernandez's fun-house set--with tilted padded floors and doors, distorting mirror, and borders of twinkling carny bulbs--found themselves charged by the electric, reflective environment. The buzzing in our heads that greeted the first lines of the actors onstage felt as if it would carry us straight into Lewis Carroll's alternative universe of linguistic lampooneries and free-associative aperçus.

Unfortunately, it seemed to have carried some patrons right out of the theater: There were a conspicuous number of empty seats by the time the lights came up on the second act of Tales of a Curious Girl. My companion mused that those who jumped ship were exhausted by trying to interpret the first act's Adventures in Wonderland barrage of shrinking, growing, wading, mushroom-nibbling, and hookah-smoking in psychosexual terms--really, the thing to do since Bruno Bettelheim made gutter-minded explication of children's stories a legitimate intellectual enterprise decades ago in The Uses of Enchantment. These infidels weren't prepared to be inundated again by Through the Looking Glass, on which the second act is based. Generally, I'm prone to think a cigar is rarely just a cigar, but it's interesting how Americans--unlike, purportedly, the English, who are trained to ignore sexuality like a belch at high tea--can't relax and enjoy Lewis Carroll's wordplay as the aerobics of the imagination it was (consciously) intended to be.

Not that playwright Karen Hartman, who was commissioned by the Dallas Theater Center to write Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl, or director Jonathan Moscone had relaxation on their minds for the squirrely first act of this world premiere. Undermain members Raphael Parry, Bruce DuBose, and Lisa Lee Schmidt, joined by DTC regular Khary Payton and 14-year-old Maine resident Sarah "Squid" Lord as Alice, turn Carroll's Wonderland into a romper room of malice and mendacity. Being deceived or at least drawn into confusion by all around her, a delightful Lord becomes our eyes and ears for this hallucinatory divertissement. What the caterpillar and the hare tell Alice to do or not to do, they also tell us, and this has always been the little-acknowledged secret of the stories' timeless appeal. They're really less concerned with capturing adolescence per se than with providing a seaworthy vessel (the good ship Alice?) by which the reader (and viewer) may weather the confusion and crises created by peers harboring mysterious and hostile agendas. Alice's triumph is the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon ideal--that rationalism swathed in polite firmness is the best weapon. Critics of repressive, class-conscious English society might interpret this as that lethal adage "Ignore the problem and it will go away."

The first act of Tales of a Curious Girl is impossible to ignore. Its frenetic confrontationalism--best appreciated at face value, not with a chaser of Freudian theory--seems to have been what alienated some audience members, but it was precisely the reason I was charmed and riveted to my seat. I can't say the same for the second act, in which the live chess game of Through the Looking Glass is translated to the stage with all its methodical gloominess intact. Christopher Akerlind's lights grow dimmer and more expressionistic, Alice switches from Victorian schoolyard wear to a red velvet formal gown (could this be the "Beautiful Red Dress" of menstruation that Laurie Anderson sang about?), and the performances slow down to a brooding, occasionally ponderous pitch. Here, playwright Hartman and director Moscone seem preoccupied with the kind of symbolism that was all but impossible to contemplate during the furious barn dance of the first act. If that's not the case, then their decision to stretch Carroll's absurd material into mournful set pieces certainly bestows the nagging feeling that we're supposed to be filling in some empty spaces, bridging the gap between content and presentation. Why is the red queen so sad about living her life in reverse? What is the meaning of the mock turtle's lost, lamented vocal career? Most infuriating of all, Hartman jumps in with self-referencing deconstruction by Humpty Dumpty, who satirizes our need to plumb these proceedings for hidden depth even as he acknowledges that we're being nudged to experience that need.

My mind sailed back to a recent stage production of the Alice tales directed by lighting wizard Eduardo Ruiz Savinón and adapted by Manuel Nnez Nava as Alicia Subterranea. Visiting the city for Teatro Dallas' International Festival, Savinón and Nava used a handful of crude props, a smoke machine, and colored lights applied with dizzying prowess (flickering waves became underwater reflections, lengthening and shortening shadows translated beautifully into Alice's size-shifting). The language barrier of the all-Spanish show broke down (though it would have remained for a non-Spanish speaker unfamiliar with Alice's adventures) as the facial expressions and body motions of the actors captured characterizations in elegantly woven butterfly nets. Who would have guessed that the spoken word would become secondary in any presentation of Lewis Carroll? Whether these Wonderland creatures preceded their author as archetypes or Carroll was the one to plant them in our literary subconscious, they emerged sharply drawn and full-blooded in a language I don't speak, and did so with a good deal less fuss than in the Dallas Theater Center's all-English adaptation.

The Wonderland first act of DTC's show is cocaine- and caffeine-fueled impressionism, a heart-pounding menagerie of comic sketches that blurs into a kaleidoscope. The Looking Glass second act is turgid Gothic academia that crawls across the stage with self-conscious aristocratic flourish and curls up in a fetal position, aware of nothing but the string-laden dirge that swells in its own fading ears. Depending on your mood and your personality, you may enjoy one act of Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl while not caring a whit for the other. The point is, propping up the mismatched pair of them as theatrical bookends sends a whole shelf full of material tumbling to the floor. I've left the theater lethargic before, and I've certainly left it excited, but the downshift of tones in one evening makes for a lingering soreness that can only be caused by a crash.

Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl runs through March 21. Call (214) 522-8499.

Director Cynthia Hestand has a long history in Dallas theater, having started the small Equity company Open Stage with husband Haskell Hestand. He was former managing director of Stage One, the Southern Methodist University company that operated back when SMU was, in the late '70s, a member of the League of Professional Training Schools along with the likes of the Yale School of Drama. Both Stage One and its heir Open Stage were concerned with premiering new works regionally, which is why the 1976 Lanford Wilson drama Serenading Louie became less of an option every year at scheduling time. Still, Stage One opened and closed its doors with two Wilson scripts (The Fifth of July and Talley's Folly, respectively), and Hestand has been biding her time to present Serenading Louie, her favorite Wilson drama. This will be its area premiere.

"This is tough stuff," Hestand admits. "When people think of Lanford Wilson, they often think of Talley's Folly (his World War II-era study of the relationship between a Southern belle and a Jewish accountant), which is happier and more romantic. Serenading Louie is a modern, epic, domestic tragedy about the dissolution of two marriages. It's his most depressing play, but also his most interesting."

Hestand is getting the chance to test her conviction with Theatre Quorum, Carl Savering and Angela Wilson's company, which is opening its second season with a production of Wilson's script that includes Savering, Angela Wilson, Dennis Millegan, and Cindee Mayfield--certainly a cast for Dallas theater patrons to get excited about. The play concerns two old college buddies (Savering and Millegan) who become alienated from their wives (patrician Mayfield and potsmoker Wilson) at the same time. Hestand had a 45-minute phone conversation with Lanford Wilson from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, and discovered that the Pulitzer Prize winner is excited about Theatre Quorum's show and pretty much anyone who mounts a Wilson play, especially the lesser-known ones.

"He said Serenading Louie contained some of his best writing, but that it would never be his favorite play, because he has never felt like it was finished," Hestand says. "The script was revised and re-produced in 1984, changing lines that the actors spoke directly to the audience into dialogue they spoke to each other. The version we're staging is different again from the '84 published version. Lanford became very passionate when he was on the phone, making vegetable soup and giving suggestions at the same time. He was saying, 'And don't forget to have this character alone on stage for this long before the other character comes on, and here's a good kind of music you might have playing in the background.'"

Hestand found Wilson's detailed input necessary, especially for the second act, which "gets very weird and surrealistic." But though the script detours into experimentalism, she says, it's grounded in some harsh realities. "Serenading Louie is about the important things we discard during our journey to find the meaning of life. Alex and Carl [the two best friends at the play's center] are failed idealists. As in a lot of Lanford's plays, there's a sense of doomed romanticism, of dealing with a yearning that can never be fulfilled."

Serenading Louie opens March 12 and runs through March 27. Call (972) 216-8131.


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