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Tess Benger's Alice is infused with an adorable, childlike awkwardness.DAHLIA KATZ/Handout

  • Title: Alice in Wonderland
  • Adapted by: Fiona Sauder
  • Music by: Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko
  • Director: Sue Miner
  • Actors: Tess Benger, Landon Doak, Jessica Gallant, Aisha Jarvis, Breton Lalama, Richard Lam, Matt Pilipiak, Fiona Sauder, Vanessa Sears
  • Company: Bad Hats Theatre with Soulpepper
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Run: To Jan. 7, 2023

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This is one question every one of us was likely asked as a child – or have asked a child after becoming adults ourselves. But what if it’s been the wrong question all along?

In Bad Hats Theatre’s contemporary reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the question of what Alice (Tess Benger) wants to be weighs heavy on her. The query is initially presented to her in a homework assignment, but it proceeds to follow her in nearly every one of her interactions. Her inability to come up with a definitive answer – and instead ask even more questions – becomes her driving force.

Bad Hats, a relatively small theatre company, originally conceived of and mounted this musical production at the height of the pandemic after their successful production of Peter Pan – but only a singular performance was ever filmed and streamed online. Since its digital debut in 2021, the show has been reimagined for a live audience that, in an interesting set-up, are seated on both sides of the stage.

Unlike the original version with which many of us are familiar, this rendition, adapted by Fiona Sauder, begins in a classroom, where Alice consistently questions the meaning behind the math questions – and the very concept of time itself – rather than providing the point-blank answers requested by her teacher, Mr. Charles (Matt Pilipiak).

Punished for her relentless inquisitiveness, Alice is banished to the back of the classroom to finish her homework. She can’t help but stare out the window daydreaming, and it’s not long before she finds herself following a white rabbit (also Pilipiak) down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.

Benger’s Alice, clad in red overalls instead of the classic blue dress, is infused with an adorable, childlike awkwardness. Her comedic timing and expert delivery regularly elicit laughs from an audience that is clearly enamoured by her.

Shortly after she arrives, the stakes of Alice’s journey through Wonderland are raised when she makes a wager with the Red Queen (Vanessa Spears, who has an impressive vocal range), in hopes of becoming a queen herself by crossing eight squares on a chess board. As she desperately continues her search for what she wants to be, a queen no doubt seems like a solid choice.

The characters speak with contradictions and sentences that only prompt further questions.DAHLIA KATZ/Handout

Along the way, she meets all the beloved characters from the original story – and each one fills her mind with even more questions. Aside from Alice and the Cheshire Cat (Aisha Jarvis), the actors each play multiple roles but successfully bring something new to every character. Tweedle Dee (Sauder) and Tweedle Dum (Landon Doak) are particularly fun to watch thanks to their physical comedy and synchronicity.

While previous adaptations of this tale (such as the National Ballet of Canada’s 2011 production) have used colourful, intricate sets to portray the fantasy world that is Wonderland, a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief is required for viewing this version. The minimalist set is made up only of desks, chairs, a blackboard and wooden frames. But through tightly choreographed movements and lights, director Sue Miner does a good job at bringing the scenes to life, so you don’t have to work too hard to believe Alice is in a garden or on a train, growing, shrinking or swimming.

Filled with catchy original music (every instrument is played by a member of the cast), modern-day references and Sauder’s quick-witted humour, the show is fast-paced and clever enough for any adult to enjoy, while still offering plenty of magical moments and kid-friendly jokes for younger audience members.

In Wonderland, the characters speak how I imagine grown-ups must sound to children: full of contradictions and sentences that only prompt further questions – which they then often refuse to answer. In the first scene, the more Alice asks her teacher why the trains are late in the math problem they’re supposed to solve, the more he dismisses her. What a maddening experience it must be to be a child surrounded by thick-headed adults pretending to know everything but are really filled with just as many questions.

Toward the end of the show, a scene between Alice and the caterpillar is a particular standout, helping to drive home the central theme.

“What I am, and who I am, are entirely different things,” the caterpillar tells Alice before emerging from a cocoon with colourful wings. “I’ll still be a caterpillar when I’m a butterfly.”

The caterpillar is played by trans actor Breton Lalama, who brings a welcome calmness to the role and adds a whole other layer of meaning to the interaction.

Perhaps the sage caterpillar is on to something, and we really have been getting it all wrong by asking what children want to be, rather than who. And how do we figure out who we want to be? By asking questions, this show argues, and embracing our curiosities. Children do this naturally. Maybe, instead of teaching them to silence their inner questions, we as adults could learn a thing or two from their persistent wondering. Perhaps we should all try stopping time, to daydream and visit Wonderland a little more often.

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