Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011

Off The Wall and Through The Looking Glass

Jeremy Welter’s raver club land ALICE IN WONDERLAND onstage and Off The Wall

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Liz Mistele—Alice as Raver Princess

These days are strange. And, considering how hugely entertaining it is, it’s a bit odd to think of Off the Wall Theatre’s Alice In Wonderland as being the least brilliant piece of theatre in Milwaukee right now. The standard set between Next Act, Renaissance Theaterworks, the Skylight Opera Theatre, Youngblood and so on . . . the standard set between all the rest of the shows in town make an obscenely fun production of Alice In Wonderland seem slightly less accomplished in contrast.

I was fully expecting to love this production, envisioned and darkly directed and adapted by Jeremy Welter. The fact that it was capable of living up to high expectations without being a disappointment says a great deal. One of my favorite actresses, Liz Mistele is dazzlingly twisted as a psycho club girl mutation of the character from Carroll’s classic books. Mistele is brilliant in this kind of role and she really excels here, albeit without dazzling beyond expectation. Mistele could play this kind of twisted, tweaked-out character countless times every year and it would never fail to be satisfying on some level. 

(In a nearly unrelated note, two out of three Milwaukee stage actress Lizzes are appearing in some fashion as Alice this month. As mentioned before Liz Shipe appears as Alice in the Urban Fairy Tale gallery photo exhibit at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center. Shipe told me she recently met Mistele. (People who had known the two of them had assumed the two had already known each other.) A production with the two of them and Liz Whitford would achieve a weird alignment of impressive Milwaukee Liz stage talent--a Milwaukee Elizabeth stage actress hat trick of sorts.)

Hatter and Alice—Welter and Mistele

With a physical aesthetic and background story grounded in the kind of ‘90’s raver culture that so openly embraced Alice In Wonderland in so many ways, the production isn’t going to appeal to purists—even those who see the darkness and madness in the original text. Purists of Carroll’s original works may be missing the point a bit . . . Carroll’s books were a deliciously safe journey into madness. A big part of that madness, beyond the particulars of British culture spoken of in the text, was the madness found in the loopholes the English language. The dialogue as brought to the stage by Welter’s script remains a lot more faithful to the original passion for weird loopholes in language than any other dramatic adaptation I can ever remember seeing.

Left to Right—Liz Mistele as Alice, Eric Nelson as Tweedledum and Eric Nelson as Tweedledee (or vice-versa)

It’s not a perfectly polished production, but there are a lot of hugely enjoyable details in here. When the trial of the Queen of Hearts’ missing tarts arises, there’s that distinctive TV theme song for Law and Order. Welter’s Mad Hatter is wearing an Alice in Wonderland t-shirt from the old Animated Disney movie. At one point the Door Mouse appears to be reading from a Samuel French-published copy of a previous adaptation of Alice In Wonderland.

 That last bit was particularly interesting as it tied-into a recent trend in Alice adaptations. Both the recent  Tim Burton film and the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, as I recall, suggested more than one “Alice,” visiting Wonderland in various points in its history. Welter’s script does a clever job of wrapping all the Wonderlands together in an endlessly plural universe. Each adaptation, Off The Wall’s included, is a separate instance in an endless series of Alices tripping their way through the madness. It’s a compellingly interesting idea that wraps the production together quite nicely.

It’s not perfectly flawless, but this particular Alice In Wonderland is an inspired brush with madness in a studio theatre that lies in the shadow of much bigger productions downtown.   

Off The Wall Theatre’s production of Alice In Wonderland runs through February 13th. For reservations, call 414-327-3552. A concise review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Express. 

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