I generally avoid hyperbolic, sensationalistic rhetoric; every now and then, though, a show comes around that challenges my critical ideology. Bad Hats Theatre’s Alice In Wonderland, presented by Soulpepper, is a case in point. My impulse is to love-bomb it so intensely that it inspires you bring each and every child in your life to see it—twice!
Fiona Sauder’s giddy and intelligent adaptation offers up a solid framing device for the story: a boisterous classroom. The students banter about homework and rile each other up with playful chiding. So much of the humour comes from their young, curious minds negotiating an adult world—inventing meanings for words they don’t understand and making them their own.
There are many clever textual set-ups here. Specific words and grown-up concepts—time and schedules and policies—are introduced for the kids to wrestle with before Alice’s imagination will take her down the rabbit hole. Key phrases and behavioural quirks echo throughout, giving kids a sense of how ideas shape the world around them.
The cast and director Sue Miner bring a very real, childlike energy and chaos to this rambunctious, exploratory zone. Each real world character has their absurdist Wonderland counterparts. Everybody brings an evocative, engaging, individualized vibe to the table. And we sense that each of them exists as full person outside the context of the story as it unfolds.
As Alice, Tess Benger has an inquisitive, plucky demeanour that draws us in. She maintains a compelling frisson too; this need to figure out what she “will be when she grows up” is always there, adding tension to even the silliest moments. This important question—the essence of the school assignment—will be addressed cleverly in the finale.
Vanessa Sears’ The Red Queen—and her over-achieving, attention-hungry real world equivalent—is another highlight. All the self-obsessed flamboyance is hilarious, but Sears lets a certain vulnerability slip out—a well-guarded yet festering terror of losing her rank and all that dutiful catering to her every whim.
The White Rabbit—from whom Alice desperately seeks guidance, but can barely keep pace with—is a sort of a fabulously manic work-a-holic. Matt Pilipiak makes this high-strung bunny a queen in his own right. His asides to himself and Alice are very funny and endear him to us.
The goofy, baroque aesthetic really sells the creative imagination that governs Wonderland, but one of my favourite performances is slightly more restrained. As the Caterpillar, Breton Lalama is a gently charismatic presence; embodying a distinctly protean, gender-fluid representation that is inclusive and supports the story’s themes.
All of Ming Wong’s costumes are richly textured, but I found the Caterpillar’s puffy, protective cocoon particularly resonant. And Lalama’s body language helps sell the idea of it as a comfortingly restrictive garment to be gloriously shed in a pivotal moment of transformation—when caterpillar turns to butterfly.
This idea of transformation—and, more expansively: of diverse forms being witnessed and celebrated and examined—is beautifully realized in all aspects of the production.
The innovative set—a collaborative design effort—consists of tables, chairs and modular window frames that are constantly moved about into various arrangements as Alice explores the world. An abundance of whimsical props help fire up our imaginations with a vivid and evocative sense of spectacle.
Logan Cracknell’s lighting design feels magically interactive; kinetic shapes and vibrant colours seem almost aware of the characters, sometimes even anticipating their moods and movements.
As a piece of musical theatre, it delivers all the goods. Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko have crafted a stirring and catchy score that feels contemporary and sophisticated. Cameron Carver’s thrilling choreography takes people under, over and around each other and all those constantly moving props and set-pieces.
When we finally return to the classroom, a tiny caterpillar that first caught Alice’s attention and sparked her daydream is now swooping into their world as a butterfly. Was Wonderland all in her imagination? Does it matter? And that pressing question returns: “What will you be when you grow up?”
She’s now gained the confidence to not know, having learned that it’s ok for your sense of purpose to be amorphous and shifting. She’s both seen and been many things during her adventure. She’s felt big and she’s felt small. And both are part of life’s journey.
With a sharp script and a fanciful aesthetic, Bad Hats’ Alice In Wonderland is an insightful and exciting experience for the whole family.