I like to describe Alice vs. Wonderland as a "remix," not an adaptation. What is a remix? We hear them on the radio all the time: it’s revisiting an old tune in a new context. But a good remix does more than just sound cool. It renews, it refreshes, it reevaluates the original. A remix is always a multilaminated cultural object; it cribs from current musical styles, references old styles and can sample any number of pop culture ephemera. Remixing is evolutionary in effect; by reinserting a song into the cultural consciousness, it survives another generation. Some songs endure without this kind of treatment (a lot of songs, actually). Some animals haven’t really evolved since the Stone Age. But there are animals, there are songs and there are stories that survive through reproduction/remixing/adaptation. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one such beast.
Where the recent blockbuster film imagines a sequel to the events of Alice’s Adventures, in Alice vs. Wonderland the basic structure of Carroll’s novel remains: a series of encounters between Alice and a gallery of oddballs. Carroll punctuates each episode with a poem, a satirical revision of a Victorian nursery rhyme; the poems mock popular verses that nannies used to teach morals. Carroll’s satire would fall flat with a modern audience; we don’t recognize his send-up of Victorian hypocrisy. But juxtaposing Alice with pop culture speaks the modern lingo. From the book, the Disney cartoon or the Burton film we have a notion of who Alice is. We also have an inherent association with pop culture—today’s nursery rhymes are not transmitted by nannies, but by TV, radio or YouTube. The collision of Carroll's characters and contemporary pop culture will hopefully spark the same smile of pleasure as Carroll’s mash-up of pious nursery rhymes.
Wonderland, to me, represents the gauntlet each of us must go through on our way to adulthood. Leaving childhood behind is not a happy dream, but a struggle. Carroll understood this, on some level. Each of the wacky characters Carroll created plays a role in Alice’s journey to self-realization. And they are all adversaries. In order to progress, she must either defeat or evade them. The clash reminded me of a video game, hence the title, Alice vs. Wonderland. Like any work of fiction, video games deal in wish fulfillment. They provide dreams on demand: the player explores a strange world, masters its rules and accomplishes the impossible. Carroll’s narrative structure is familiar to anyone who grew up with Super Mario or Mega Man—it’s a grab bag of surreal episodes, each with a puzzle to solve or an enemy to defeat.
As you will see, six actresses play Alice in our production, taking Alice’s words literally: "I must have been changed several times since then...." Each Alice evokes a different aspect of teendom. Rebellion against authority. Self-destruction. The mysteries of sex. Alice’s identity in Wonderland is kept fluid, and this is meant to invite us in to her private identity crisis, maybe recognizing parts of our own middle-school selves floundering in there. For me, experiencing Carroll’s story is not about watching Alice dream—it’s about dreaming with Alice.
Brendan Shea is a 2010 graduate of the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. He is currently the Artistic/Dramaturgy Fellow at the A.R.T.