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Reviewed by:
  • Alice
  • Robert Vorlicky
Alice. By Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and Paul Schmidt, after Lewis Carroll. Thalia Theater, Hamburg. Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York. 13 October 1995.

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Figure 1.

Alice (Annette Paulmann) in the Thalia Theater’s production of Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and Paul Schmidt’s Alice, directed and designed by Robert Wilson. Photo: Clarchen Baus-Mattar.

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Figure 2.

Fawn (Oana Solomonescu) and Alice (Annette Paulmann) in the Thalia Theater’s production of Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and Paul Schmidt’s Alice, directed and designed by Robert Wilson. Photo: Clarchen Baus-Mattar.

Since the first publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There six years later, both books have proven consistently popular among children and adults alike. Adults cannot help but be intrigued by the relationship that sparked the works: the infatuation that Carroll (the pseudonym for Charles Dodgson, an Oxford University mathematician, clergyman, and noted amateur photographer) had for Alice Liddell, the enchanting child of a Christ Church dean. Dodgson penned his “Alice” stories for the amusement of the young girl, creating in her fictional counterpart a confident, appealing, common-sensical heroine. The stories stand as his lasting tribute to the child; his photographs of Alice and many other girls he obsessively shot, however, remain enigmatic if not problematic.

Three years after its premiere at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany (where the production was considered an “art musical”), the eagerly awaited Alice, a play with music based on Dodgson’s stories, had its American premiere as the opening event in the 1995 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The production features the distinct direction of Robert Wilson, who also created the production’s haunting designs, an adaptation of Dodgson/Carroll’s text by Paul Schmidt, and music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. On all these scores, Alice theatricalized this literary classic through its own interpretative, and generally satisfying, spin on the relationship between the artist and his subject.

“Our intention,” remarks Schmidt in his program note to the production, is “to investigate the curious mind that produced” the story. Structured in two acts, with fourteen scenes and fourteen “knee” sections, Alice reveals the inherent complexities this “curious mind” developed in relation to the other, which, as Schmidt continues, is “the tension between the childish charm of the storyteller and the repressed sexuality of the photographer.” Yet the way Schmidt’s adaptation incorporates the stories of Alice is filtered initially through Dodgson/Carroll’s imagination and then through the various artistic media employed by each of the collaborators. Alice is presented as both a fictional character and as a “real” aging woman who, as performed by Annette Paulmann, sings knowingly about being “still here” in the final scene (Alice, Thalia Theater program/libretto, 63). The collective relationship of the older male trio of Wilson, Waits, and Schmidt to the play’s subject is not unlike Dodgson’s to the girl he wrote for and photographed. Alice ultimately raises tensions beyond the piece’s ambiguous central motif of “to help or harm” (as stated by Wilson in the production’s press release) as literally played out between male adult and female child. [End Page 365]

Through the juxtaposition of vividly fresh visual tableaux, varied musical styles, colorful and stylized costumes, and evocative lighting, Alice captures theatrically a range of coexistent, paradoxical relationships that mark “meaning” (58). Such “meaning” is perhaps connected in spirit to the paradoxes that the elder Dodgson would investigate years after writing the Alice stories when he became a formal logician: art and life, chaos and order, imagination and reason, innocence and evil, idealism and experience. Alice’s creative team accumulates sights and sounds that finally capture a perfect stage metaphor for the abstracted human condition. Alice asks “To be seen and unseen and is there ever a way out of that?” (52), to which Wilson’s production responds “not really.”

Alice, then, becomes an illuminating meditation on the layers of action that coexist when the character of...

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