By Michael Wise
Directed by Rose Freeman
Presented by Nothing Without a Company
Playing in Lincoln Park around North Pond
You don’t realize how dark and sterile the traditional proscenium stage can be until you step out into the sunlight. Or at least that’s what I learned from a recent excursion to Nothing Without a Company’s production of Alice, now strolling through the picturesque back pathways of Lincoln Park’s North Pond.
Fresh, teasingly playful, and free to the public, this ambitious feat of ‘promenade theater’ features playwright Michael Wise’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much-beloved classic but with a decidedly contemporary twist. In lieu of the madcap Wonderland of old, Wise’s Alice—darting wildly in search of the ever-so-dreamy White Rabbit—finds herself lost in the strangely recognizable urban jungle of our very own Chicago.
And the audience, following two flag-laden guides, is led along for the adventure. Not that we’re complaining. Even on the leisurely strolls taken between scenes, there’s plenty to absorb here: sentimental rows of late-blooming summer flowers, families of ducks swimming along the shoreline, passersby on their bikes, and the impressive skyline off North Lakeview Avenue. Yet Alice—far from treating its environment as a series of distracting hurdles—incorporates every diverse Chicago happening into its folds, reaching every corner of Lincoln Park to create a theatrical tapestry as rich and textured as the city itself.
Thankfully director Rose Freeman has an impeccable vision, knowing how even in the most expansive of settings to draw acute focus to her story. Her Alice (Stephanie Shum) is a recent wide-eyed migrant to the fair city of Chicago who falls head over heels for the fast-talking, slick-walking White Rabbit (Gage Wallace). Following him deeper into Lincoln Park, it’s there that Alice comes upon a cast of misfit miscreants.
Nipping close at Alice’s heels throughout are the two Guinea Pigs (played by Val Lyvers and Dani Loumena)—a couple of somersaulting Tweedle Dee and Tweedle-Dum-like characters with a penchant for misdirection. But also found along the way are the familiar Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat and the Madhatter’s tea party. But one of the novel appeals of Alice is its ability to bring a certain urban grotesqueness to its characters. The madness of ‘3 Cards’ (Rashaad Hall), for instance, while ostensibly caused by a failure to paint the Queen’s roses red, eerily evokes the plight of Chicago’s homeless and mentally ill. Far from adopting some overly naive perspective on Chicago, this highly ambitious Alice tacitly addresses the seedier sides of the city, or at the very least has the good sense to be socially conscious of the darker dimensions of 21st-century urban decay.
Performances on the whole range from the beguilingly silly to the grotesquely weird. Front and center is Stephanie Shum whose Alice is defiantly likable in her warm-hearted openness to new characters and strange experiences. And Gage Wallace as the White Rabbit gives new meaning to the term ‘Playboy Bunny,’ effortlessly oozing a caddish charm even as he hops to. But especially notable is Anya Clingman whose terrifying turn as the Queen of Hearts is a no holds barred performance. Scowling with menace from ear to ear, her eyes aflame in holy terror, Clingman milks every extremity of her character to tremendous comedic effect. Those inclined to linger behind the pack should be careful not to miss Clingman fighting a stupendous duel to the death with a flamingo croquet mallet.
Alice’s lean budget is stretched exceedingly well, making innovative use of little more than hula hoops, walking sticks, foam swimming tubes, Barbie dolls, plastic playhouses, and abandoned grocery carts. Where literal resources are wanting, Alice makes a surplus of creative resourcefulness. As any regular theatergoer will tell you, big budgets often breed literal-minded complacency in audiences. Hence Alice stands as a much needed corrective to this tendency, reminding us how magical live theater can be when it adopts an attitude of carefree playfulness.
Be forewarned: Alice is not your typical theatrical outing. Walking shoes are required, and the production covers considerable ground (occasionally uphill) in a short period of time. Those who have difficulty keeping pace might wish to sit this one out, including those with children too small to keep up on their own.
But those looking for new adventures in the Big City could do significantly worse than this exuberant late-summer romp through the Wonderland that is Chicago. Featuring an eager and frolicsome troupe of young artists, Nothing Without a Company’s production of Alice has the uncanny effect of making even the most familiar of skylines and the most trodden of pathways feel magically new again.
Reviewed by Anthony Mangini
Reviewed Friday, August 23rd, 2013.
Running time is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.
Alice runs until September 15th, 2013. The performance begins in Lincoln Park just north of Fullerton Pkwy by Cannon Drive, near the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum at 2430 N. Cannon Drive. Tickets are free and can be reserved by emailing [email protected].