Monday, March 8, 2010

Our "ALiCE" is better than Tim Burton's!

Seeing student playwrights get produced on Princeton’s campus is always encouraging. When the work is as smartly written and brilliantly acted as Veronica Siverd ’10’s “ALICE: A New Play,” it makes for a delightfully memorable night of theater.

Siverd’s reading of Lewis Carroll’s timeless coming-of-age story is guided by the observation “that the Victorian twelve,” as she writes in her program notes, “has a lot in common with today’s twenty-one.” Inspired by this premise, Siverd recasts Alice as an ambitious but unsure twenty-one-year-old navigating the pitfalls of academia, finding a career, and transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Her script manages to deftly update the story to advance a contemporary message while still preserving the original’s most endearing and familiar aspects. The Queen (Dominique Salerno ’10) still shouts “Off with her head!”, the Mad Hatter (Becca Foresman ’10) still has a tea party, and the White Rabbit is still, well, Heather May ’10 sporting a white body suit and bunny ears.

Under the direction of Tim Vassen, the quartet of senior actresses, highlighted by Siverd playing her own title character, all turn in outstanding performances. Salerno, Foresman, and May each play multiple parts and transition between roles with ease. The group’s impeccable timing and cohesion is repeatedly illustrated by the numerous complicated sound effects, most executed by members of the cast standing to the side or in the wings.

Where the show particularly shines are the many instances in which great acting brings to life the script’s new take on Carroll. Salerno plays a Queen who has traded her throne for an ergonomic desk chair in a “Career Services” office and spouts clichĂ©s like “on paper,” “across the board,” and “nobody who’s anybody starts at square one” to the job-hunting Alice. A couple of buffoonish truckers, played with creative puppets designed by Anya Klepikov, Martha Ferguson ’11, and William Martinez ’11, embarrass themselves in a clumsy attempt to woo Alice. Salerno, now an erudite Humpty Dumpty, exhorts Alice about the importance of close reading and leads her in a hilarious feminist deconstruction of the “Jabberwocky.” Siverd’s writing and Salerno’s acting are so appropriately over-the-top that serious feminist literary criticism is spared the ridicule, and the scene becomes a strong meditation on the perils of academic excess.

In a break from these parodic vignettes, May movingly portrays a White Rabbit who can’t quite let go of Alice, a nurturing authority figure who too must grapple with Alice’s march to adulthood. In a pathetic but charming attempt to preserve their connection, she negotiates with Alice about when she is allowed to approach Alice to have a conversation.

In a nice crowning touch, Siverd occasionally weaves meta-dramatic elements into her script. Like everything else in “ALICE,” they are fresh and funny but never obtrusive or gratuitous. Indeed, one of the most entertaining moments in the show comes when the Queen exasperatedly jettisons her chair off the front of the stage, only to have a techie sheepishly retrieve it moments later.

Although Alice often appears bewildered, she ultimately comes off as an appealingly empowered female protagonist. The root of her indecision, Siverd’s meticulous dissection of contemporary society reminds us, is the world around her, and Alice, which Siverd’s luminous performance captures exquisitely, is just resourceful enough to make it through. A real feeling of urgency and relevance permeates the production, perhaps driven by the fact that in mere months the cast will don orange-and-black robes eerily similar to the one Alice puts on in the final scene.

I counted more toddlers and seniors in the audience than I have ever seen at a Princeton student production. Staging “ALICE” in the Berlind certainly helped draw in the community, but the diverse house is also a testament to the broad appeal of Siverd’s catchy but thought-provoking play. Seeing many of the spectators dancing merrily on stage with the cast and crew after the performance to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” was a powerful reminder of theater’s power to bring people together.

5 Paws

Pros: Smart, creative adaptation of a classic supported by exceptional acting.

Cons: House should have been fuller.

-Joseph Dexter '13

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