ByMay S. Ruiz
Betransported to a fantastical universe when ‘Alice in Wonderland’ goes on stagefrom March 1 through April 18 at A Noise Within. Adapted by Eva Le Gallienneand Florida Friebus from the beloved Lewis Carroll books ‘Alice’s Adventures inWonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ this production is directed bytwo-time Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award winner Stephanie Shroyer. ErikaSoto stars as Alice and is joined by Susan Angelo, Bert Emmett, RafaelGoldstein, Julanne Chidi Hill, Kasaey Mahaffy, Justin Lawrence Barnes, andGabriel Leyva.
Thestory begins in Victorian England then quickly ventures into the topsy-turvyworld that makes Wonderland. There we meet the various creatures that Alice encountersalong the way. An ensemble cast becomes the white rabbit, the queen of hearts,the Cheshire cat, the duchess, the caterpillar, the mad hatter, the March hare,the dormouse, and all the other characters.
RafaelGoldstein, who is part of the ensemble, sits down with me one late afternoon totalk about the play and his many roles. In an earlier interview, he mentionedthat his father was a teacher and he took home books for the children to readevery night. I ask if ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was one of thosebooks.
“Idon’t think it was, but we did watch a couple of made-for-TV productions of it,”Goldstein recalls. “Although my father introduced me to the ‘Jabberwocky’ whenI was very young because he would use it in his classes to teach parts ofspeech. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the ‘Jabberwocky’ is a nonsensepoem using weird words. But by virtue of the way they sound, and theirplacement in a sentence, you can apply whatever meaning you wish to the poem.That’s sort of Carroll in a nutshell.”
“Ifthis anecdote is to be believed, when Carroll first started writing ‘Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland,’ he set out to write a children’s story without amoral,” continues Goldstein. “All the children’s tales at the time taughtlessons – listen to your parents, don’t talk to strangers, stuff like that.This was pure fancy, it was creating this world around this child that shecould disappear into. It’s an interesting take because Alice is beingconfronted with characters – animals and people – and the rules of that worldkeep changing so she’s having to adapt. You can’t help but feel that it’s acomment on what the world does to children – people who are thrown into acountry where they don’t speak that language so they have to figure out fromclues and context what the rules of engagement might be. And it really justpoints out the fact that the rules in any world can be arbitrary and how,often, children bear the brunt of those arbitrary rules.”
Accordingto accounts, the original handwritten and illustrated copy is now lost and Carrollmade revisions when he gave in to pressure to publish it into a book. Perhaps thatwas when he added the situations where lessons can be gleaned, I conjecture.
Goldsteinexplains, “He did mention in subsequent interviews how people were findingmeaning and he was cagey about that. There’s a famous riddle in ‘Alice inWonderland’ – why is a raven like a writing desk? Scholars at Oxford andCambridge have been speculating whether it’s a math or a literature joke.Carroll was a mathematician so mathematicians claim that it’s clearly amathematical equation and if you look for the clues you can find out the answerto it. Others were saying that one of the explanations for why a raven was likea writing desk was a reference to Edgar Allan Poe. But Carroll resisted allattempts to explain his work or to assign any meaning. He waffled a lot on it,but, at the end of the day, I think he wanted to maintain this aura of mysteryand whimsy. And I think this production succeeds in that – it is a presentationof this world and does a good job of honoring Carroll’s stated intention. Butas to the work itself, I think audiences will see what they want to see.”
Askedfor his impression, Goldstein confesses, “I’ve read it now a couple of timesduring this process and I’m guilty of assigning meaning to it. It does feellike he’s preparing Alice for adulthood. And I feel like he’s trying to giveher this story that illustrates how difficult it is to navigate the adultworld.”
“This play combines both ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass.’” elucidates Goldstein . “The first half is light and whimsical and zany. The second half is much more abstract and a little threatening, a little philosophical. I think that that structure is there on purpose – to put you at ease in the first half so that you’re open and available for the philosophical dissertation that he’s presenting to Alice.
“It’sa cast of eight – Erika Soto is Alice and stays Alice throughout and the otherseven of us are taking on the rest of the roles. We’re doubling, tripling,quadrupling and reaching very deep into our bag of character voices and faces. Iplay the mad hatter, Tweedledee, a crab, which I’m very proud of, a caterpillar,and some Victorian spirits. The characters in this adaptation are straight outof Lewis Carroll’s – they are very colorful and each of them has their ownpoint of view and communicating so they have to be reflected in theperformance.”
“It’s been a wonderful challenge, actually,” Goldstein discloses with a laugh. “It’s been a lot of fun. Because these characters are so iconic and so much a part of the vernacular of the literary world, you’ll find a reference to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ So people coming to the show will have their own versions of Alice, the mad hatter, the March hare, Tweedles Dee and Dum. Part of what we’ve been exploring and experimenting with is finding a new way of approaching them.
“Yes,this production is recommended for ages six and up but we also have to rememberthat adults are watching it as well. Tapping into what makes these characterscompelling and indelible, and why they’ve lasted for so long has been a joy.”
Howdoes this production make a fantastic world come to life? I inquire. Rafaelsays, “We have access to the best designers in town. This play is a director’sand designer’s dream. Actors can only do so much with our physical bodies andeverything else will come from the costumes, sets, lighting, music. They are craftingthis world around us. In the rehearsal hall, we would be going through a sceneand all the actors would be deep in thought about what’s happening in it– she’sgoing to cry and because she’s a giant, her tears will create an ocean. And allof us are sitting there asking how this is going to happen. Then we get downinto the theatre and the designers will say ‘we’ll just throw a light there,we’ll have a sound cue there’ and as we run it, all of a sudden the worldbecomes clear. And while Carroll might not want us to have a point of view oran attempt at understanding or deconstructing the piece, it is the artist’s jobto have a point of view, to have this nonsense make sense. The designer’s workis valuable in communicating that not only to the actors but to the audience aswell.”
Goldstein says about the production, “There’s something in the production that will appeal to all ages. For those of us who are older, it’s an opportunity to reclaim a piece of childhood that we think we’ve left behind as we become adults. It’s a chance to live in that fantasy world unapologetically. And I’m reveling in that opportunity right now where play is serious and serious matters are ridiculous. That inversion is fun to experiment with.”
“Ithink this story is important especially now when the world seems inexplicable.I think this play does a good job of saying ‘It’s okay. No matter how strange,upsetting, unpredictable, or crazy things around you may seem, there’s a verygood chance you will prevail because you’re prepared. ‘Readiness is all,’ asHamlet says,” concludes Goldstein.
Looking at it that way, we can all take life lessons from Alice’s experience and be ready for whatever the world throws at us.