I think I can’t be Mabel, because I know so many things, and she so little. Besides, I’m I, and she’s she.” Whatever you know—or think you know—about Alice in Wonderland, the Rev. Dodgson’s voyage into the mind of a young girl dropped down a rabbit hole into a dream world of playing cards, mad tea parties and hookah-smoking caterpillars—you’ll be delightfully surprised and newly enlightened by Ragged Wing Ensemble’s completely kinetic staging of Andre Gregory’s (My Dinner with Andre) adaptation (with “the Manhattan Project”—a bid to add Einstein and Oppenheimer to Freud and the Surrealists as Lewis Carroll knock-offs?) at Envision Academy in the Julia Morgan-designed old YWCA building at 1515 Webster in downtown Oakland. It’s going into its last two weekends with a full head of steam, as if the revved-up cast had eaten of the caterpillar’s mushroom and obeyed the tag on the little bottle that reads “Drink Me.”
Escorted upstairs from the atrium lobby (inscribed under the great skylight: “The heavens declare the glory of God/the firmament showeth his handiwork/Day unto day uttereth speech and night/unto night showeth knowledge”—an apt Biblical homily to usher us into the Victorian mindset Alice’s author deranges), the audience is seated on risers leading up to the auditorium stage. The action takes place on the floor of the orchestra and upstairs in the balcony, swirling around, surging forward and back, racing up and down the aisles.
And different spectators will laugh and react at different moments in the action. It’s a strange phenomenon remembered from My Dinner with Andre. There is seldom any unanimity of response, which somehow adds to the giddiness of the performance, lending it the air of being not only an ensemble show but a true group experience, a chain reaction of individuals ignited by the little trouvailles Alice stumbles on, or which trip her up.
Once seated, we hear tango music. A gent (Keith Cory Davis) in a red bow tie, carrying a valise, zips down through the audience from the empty stage behind us to the floor ahead and below to unpack “Alice,” a big rag doll. (Later I heard David Stein, who plays the Red Queen and the frog Footman, among others, refer to the show as “Ragged Alice”). He asks the audience prescriptively to silence cellphones—then, unnerved by echoes of giggling from backstage, begins to manipulate the doll, making Alice herself into a spectator. A chorus (Jacob Basri, Vanessa Godinez, Amalia Korczowski and Hilary Milton) of young interns (Ragged Wing integrates their students into all their shows) bursts into “Jabberwocky,” which quickly syncopates and tersichoreates into hip-hop to stop the clock.
With the skillful direction of Amy Sass (who also directed The Serpent, Ragged Wing’s initial outing a few years back, and has been featured as a very fine performer in the two other shows since), the ensemble expands and contracts in perpetual motion. It takes in every inch of the theatrical space, upstairs and downstairs together, making it breathe, populating it with Carroll’s crazy creatures, and creatively playing out the mind-boggling changes of shape and size that send Alice shooting up through the treetops (where the birds think her a serpent) or shrinking down to a speck on the floor, washed away in a tiny deluge with bitsy crabs, dodos and water mice.
With quick-change costumery (Amy Sass’s design), puppets assembled equally fast (Danny Neece’s) and sometimes combined with human bodies (Anna Shneiderman’s fuming Caterpillar), recited poems (“This poem I am going to recite was written entirely for your benefit,” Humpty Dumpty broadly confides—Shneiderman again, sucking a stogie, the only castmember who keeps “smoking” onstage) and meticulous choreography, Ragged Wing plays the space like an accordion (music by Jasper Patterson) until the building itself seems to be respiring. The action multiplies, doubling, with at first a binocular Alice (the role gets passed around, everybody an Alice, sooner or later). Then, towards the end of the crazy dream, the action unfolds into a kaleidoscope of Alices, all curtsying at curtain call, each the seven-and-a-half year-old voice of Victorian reason, amid the wild phantasmagoric flora and fauna of the brain, that can spawn sea serpents in a little girl’s copious tears or a state of terror from a pack of playing cards.
The script is maybe the best theatrical take on Alice for a contemporary audience, quick and knowing, no preambles or pauses. And Sass’s direction makes it come alive, as each ensemble member pitches in handily, with fine work from Ragged Wing regulars Davis (a truly crazed Mad Hatter and a White Knight beyond the pale), Shneiderman, and Jeffrey Hoffman (who plays a true Dodo and finds the zany core of the White Queen in drag), plus Jennifer Antonacci (a nutty March Hare and scary Duchess), David Stein and Emily Morrison (whose Cheshire Cat brings grins to the audience).
Leaving the resounding old hall becomes as funny as the play, with real life suddenly looking like the mathematician Dodgson’s supposedly concocted nonsense. Ragged Wing has stirred up Alice into quite a froth, as heady as the original—“and yet it was a very clever pudding to invent!”