Alice in Washington

Review by Ralph Dumain

I attended the premiere of Spooky Action Theater's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland last night, followed by a yumptious reception. I have a soft spot for this theater company and heartily recommend that my readers support it. It's not pitched to the upscale Washington set, thank goodness, and in fact you set your own admission price. You get a good vibe from these folks and the material is definitely not the same old shit. I feel happy in their presence, and that is one good reason to support them. This is the company's third production in Washington. I attended the previous production, Rameau's Nephew, based on a work by the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. As the director favors abstract, philosophical themes, philosophers and the philosophically minded should check out this company's productions.

You should know that there are polar opposite factors working in conjunction here. These are not talky-talky plays in the vein of George Bernard Shaw's talking heads theater. The irony is that this theater is non-traditional, grounded in dance and physicality. My conversation with the performers revealed that this extremely physical theater works very well with abstract subject matter, and that it is easier to be innovative with such material than with traditional naturalistic drama.

The high energy level and enthusiasm of these performers are remarkable. There were no pauses or separate acts in this production, meaning that the performers had to sustain a fever-pitch level of acrobatic, violent kinetics, inviting bruises and other injuries, with no rest stops.

Now, how well does the play realize its premise? Here is a passage from the program notes:

Alice's rational expectations about the rules of the game and social propriety are literally stood on their heads. By the end, she comes to see not just the outward form of things but the energy and intention that gives them shape. She hears not just the words that are spoken, (which sound like nonsense), but listens to the impulse behind them and their true meaning.

In the subsequent paragraph, the seeming incongruity between Charles Dodgson's professional life as a mathematician and Lewis Carroll's literary purveyance of "nonsense" is addressed. Via the mathematical example of imaginary numbers as a metaphor, the conclusion is drawn that

. . . you often have to adventure into the world of imaginary numbers in order to come out again in the world of real numbers with true results. . . . To truly understand the 'reality' that surrounds us we have to venture through the fantasies, imaginary and irrational possibilities that are always teeming somewhere below the surface of our minds.

An intriguing perspective. I follow the logic of this argument up to a point, but I feel that a punchline is missing. And I must say that I have trouble matching this thesis up with the performance as I experienced it.

I am quite familiar with the artistic device of the initiation of uptight individuals who are products of a reified world into a bizarre demimonde that smashes their presumptions about reality. Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" presents such a scenario. While I can see that Dodgson/Carroll might have been subject to conscious, or more likely unconscious, motives to proceed down this path, I don't think that the Spooky Theater production follows the logic of the liner notes, nor do I sense that it realizes the ethical motivation underlying Bob Dylan's macabre drama. (Isn't it curious and curiouser that the only compassionate conservative this country has known, Jimmy Carter, singled out this Bob Dylan song for admiration? The guilty conscience of the Southern white man—it's what's for dinner.)

The initiation rite I see in this performance reminds me of the hazing one experiences in fraternities, sororities, and military academies. I see nothing redemptive in this scenario. Furthermore, in the confrontation between Alice's logic and the violent kinetics of her mad interlocutors I feel that the intriguing logical musings of Lewis Carroll tend to be drowned out by the inchoate, emotion-laden, impulsive antics of the mad characters on stage. There's scarcely a moment to reflect on Carroll's famous logical conundrums as the characters assault one another at a breakneck pace.

But there is something else going on here, both in the characters' absurd, arrogant, or desperate efforts to express themselves and in Alice's reaction to them. Alice doesn't take their crap lying down. She enters into their world and negotiates it, confronting their illogicality or exploiting their twisted logic according to necessity. Alice is neither too rigid to adapt nor does she capitulate. The logic of this confrontation tends to be obscured, I feel, in the physical-emotional interplay of Alice and the nutters.

But . . . there is a character—the White Knight (played by Joel Reuben Ganz)—who ekes out incoherent efforts to express himself—"My mind keeps on inventing things"—that are comedic in effect though pathetic in essence. Alice is compassionate towards him in these exasperating moments. And here is where the logic of the piece hit me. This character is a Caliban-type who can't quite attain the dignity of the human. Whatever the director's intent, at this moment a conclusion is inescapable: the play weights Carroll's Alice in Wonderland on the decidedly Dionysian side of the balance, but that proves to be blind and pitiful without an Apollonian counterweight, as logic is assimilated to a regime of brute force. Is this what was lurking in Dodgson's Victorian unconscious? The logic of Dodgson's daylight world was staid and bourgeois, while Carroll's oneiric logic dislodged its presumptions, looking back to the divine right of arbitrary power and ahead to the disintegration of bourgeois rationality. But to what end? This we do not know.

I can only hope that the media reviewers will spread the news. Yet, given the alternatives of the Washington Post with a broomstick up its ass, and the Washington City Paper pandering to yuppie cynicism, what hope is there? Luckily, you have me to hold down the fort for popular enlightenment.

Written 16 May 2006, edited 17 May 2006
©2006 Ralph Dumain

May 15 - June 4, 2006
Wed, Thur & Sun at 7:30 pm, Sun matinees at 2 pm.
Mead Theatre Lab @ Flashpoint, 916 G St NW, Washington, DC 20001. Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown.
Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Andre Gregory and the Manhattan Project - directed by Richard Henrich.
Performance by Spooky Action Theater. An ensemble creation featuring: Joel Reuben Ganz, Jessica Hansen, Marissa Molnar, Joseph Perna, Francisco Reinoso & Yasmin Tuazon.
Open admission, donation suggested. Reserve by calling 202-248-0647 or e-mail

Oxford Don smitten with 7-year-old girl propels her through an unhinged alternative world. Things spring to life. All the creatures and people are mad. Propriety is stripped, the rules turn inside out. What's left is raw instinct—and love rising up from the wreckage.

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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Uploaded 17 May 2006

©2006 Ralph Dumain