New York

Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson’s Alice, 1995, written by Paul Schmidt and performed by actors from the Thalia Theater of Hamburg, is an adult wonderland of theatrical anecdotes that alternate between the fantastic and the ordinary, between Wilson’s customary brilliance of scale and imagination and the predictability of Alice’s all-too-familiar journey through terrains both large and small. Absurd and tender, cruel and comic, Alice is both a rendering of and a commentary on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Alice starts out sedately; the stage is filled with 12 identically dressed and be-wigged figures made up to look like mathematician and Oxford don Rev. Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll). The figures follow a genteel choreographic pattern more associated with traditional ballet than with Wilson’s typically electric stage direction. The second scene begins with a long, black cloth-tunnel moving across the stage; out of it emerges a Victorian tripod camera with an extralong nozzle of a lens, which in Dodgson’s hands probes the air around Alice, now seated on a chair. This image, of Dodgson closing in on his model, establishes the framework for Wilson’s evening of theater; within it he creates a picture of Dodgson, his intellect and his passions, and weaves it into Alice’s adventures by having the same precisely mannered actor (Stefan Kurt) play Dodgson, the White Rabbit, and the White Knight. By the end of the evening we have learned much about both the fictional and the real Alice, a remarkable end result for a Wilson production, where narrative content is rarely the point of his many tautly constructed scenes.

Also unusual is the way in which several sections recall imagery from Wilson’s rich repertoire. When dancers move transparent square panes (eventually reshaped to form the word “Alice”) around the stage, for example, suggesting Alice’s looking glass, one of Wilson’s earliest effects from the Forest Scene in Deafman Glance, 1970, comes to mind. Later, when Dodgson plays a word game with Alice, the backdrop of letters and words recalls a scene from A Letter from Queen Victoria, 1974. And seeing the White Rabbit, impeccable and late as ever, tripping across the stage in stacked heels and white dress coat with pointed tails that drag along the floor, reminded the viewer of Wilson’s 1993 production of The Black Rider, with its similarly choreographed master of ceremonies (sans rabbit ears and dressed entirely in black).

Some of the animals that appeared in earlier Wilson productions—a giant frog or building-high cat’s legs—are close cousins to Dodgson’s Cheshire Cat or Caterpillar, and curiously, the worlds that both Dodgson and Wilson conjure, 100 years apart, depend on equal measures of irrationality and imploding scale to hook their audiences. Sometimes Alice seems an all too obvious match for Wilson. But with Schmidt’s texts, which waver on the very edge of Dodgson’s own, and music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, which drench each scene with highly textured sounds coaxed from an unusual assemblage of instruments (violas, digital violins, saxophones, and a harp), Alice is an eccentric if uneven piece of musical theater.

RoseLee Goldberg