Rabbits beckon to her. Her mother upbraids her. Her changing identity confounds her. Alice is, above all, a victim in “Phantomwise,” the Yale University Dramatic Assocation’s Fall Experimental production. Written by veteran Dramat member Oren Stevens ’11, “Phantomwise” leaves the viewer with a head spinning as fast as Alice does when she falls down the rabbit-hole.
Stevens presents to us the story of the real Alice: sprightly young Alice Liddell (Emma Barash ’11), the daughter of an Oxford college dean. Alice befriends Dr. Charles Dodgson (Matthew McCollum ’11), a professor and friend of her father’s. Amicable and known for having a stutter — but “only when [he] speak[s] to adults” — Dodgson has a penchant for storytelling that Alice and her sister Edith (Peregrine Heard ’12) delight in. It is this unlikely bond that drives the play’s action.
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Shifts and juxtapositions define “Phantomwise.” Alice, Edith and Dodgson let their imaginations roam free. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, Lorina (Allison Collins ’11), debates Dodgson’s trustworthiness with her largely ineffectual husband Henry (Jamie Biondi ’12) and Father Robinson Duckworth (Jason Perlman ’11), a mutual friend of Dodgson and the Liddells. Wonderland characters listen to each others’ pasts as Alice worries about her own future. Convoluted and occasionally inexplicable, the interplay between fantasy and practicality, innocence and skepticism, is key.
The production is most succesful when Stevens’s imagery is brought to life via the guidelines of director Maya Seidler ’11. My favorite: while Dodgson spins a narrative about ‘dream’ Alice growing and growing in the rabbit’s tiny house, becoming more uncomfortable by the minute,‘real-world’ Alice is also on stage, being forced into a corset for the first time. Any viewer who’s had experience with skinny jeans — and, I mean, this is Yale — just drowns in empathy.
The acting shines as well. McCollum moves us; Barash’s enthusiasm is infectious. Collins does a masterful job rendering a nineteenth-century English mother equally concerned with societal mores and “wanting [her children] to move past the limits [she has] reached.” She keeps us enthralled with her mood-swings, blasts of rage and, by the end, depth. Also memorable was Heard’s performance, as both Edith and various characters in Wonderland. She is incorrigibly funny — she simply doesn’t “abide figures”, you see — but also very easy to relate to. A crowd of college students is the ideal target audience for her brand of ‘must-grow-up-and-get-what-I-want-NOW’ bullheadedness. Together, as in Act Two’s tea party scene, they are uproarious.
We’re left with just one problem: understanding what’s going on. The production begins to lag after the intermission, and never really regains its former speed. It’s a simple case of too many ideas, too little time. Conveying a story as complex as this one is never easy. It’s even harder when your lead fails to establish a strong connection with the audience until the play’s end. While Barash interests us, she does not manage to completely win us over. This is problematic. Do we really care about what happens to Alice?
What’s frustrating is, “Phantomwise” almost gets it right. A contemporary Greek chorus intermittently echoes the main players’ words, and the occasional interjections from Lewis Carrol’s original novel are terrific. They add to the power of Stevens’ text, turning the dry words into actual experiences. But these moments are few and far between.
The way Alice’s story is re-imagined is haunting and creative, but far from gripping. “Phantomwise” is a demanding production, but one often feels it’s not worth the effort. Here’s a tip: pick up some Red Bull on your way in, and you’ll be fine.
“Phantomwise” runs at the Yale Repertory Theatre from Oct. 7-9.