Nichole Canuso's "Wandering Alice'

The Fringe, Day 2:
Alice finds Wonderland in Old City

STEVE COHEN

    After taking a two-mile walking tour Saturday, I picked a theatrical event for my second Fringe Festival activity. Turned out that this, too, was pedestrian, but only in that word’s narrowest, literal sense. Wandering Alice, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, is innovative and exciting. Attendees must do plenty of walking, up and down the steps of the Christ Church Community House, following the journeys of Nichole Canuso as Alice.

     The play offers only the slenderest connection with Lewis Carroll’s book. Here the premise is that Alice has lost a spiral notebook that contains the details of her existence. Without it, she doesn’t know what to think or do. If she doesn’t find it, who will she be?

    Canuso, with her expressive face and mobile body, grabs our sympathy as she embodies Alice’s perfect innocence. We see pages of her notebook fluttering down the stairwell. We can read some of them, but Alice cannot. She turns for advice to actors and dancers who lead her, and us, on a hallucinatory journey that consumes two floors of the large building.  
  
     This activity, excellently directed and choreographed by Canuso and Suli Holum, is accompanied by video projections, sound effects and music by James Sugg and Michael Kiley, who also appear in the show.

A Japanese inspiration, with a difference

    The play acknowledges inspiration from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but doesn’t copy its specific adventures. Haruki Murakami’s novel centers on a Japanese man who has lost his job and his wife – in a sense, his identity – but he is the embodiment of passivity, whereas Canuso’s Alice clearly wants to discover who she is. Her wanderings are active and urgent. Both Murakami and Carroll draw us in to a land of dreams, and this production does the same.

    It’s especially notable that the play conveys an improvised feel even though it isn’t. The dancers encourage the participation of audience members with subtlety and finesse, with whispers and with gestures.

    The audience is limited to no more than 26, barely more than the size of the cast. This restriction ensures intimacy and interaction with individual performers. We find ourselves separated from our real-life companions and pairing off with Alice’s. Sometimes the player/partner leaves the room, so that each of us must decide whether to wait for him or her to return or to follow. This is a rare show where different audience members literally have differing experiences.

Leaving the audience to wander

    Often the production is aleatory, from the Latin word for dice: employing the element of chance, with choices left to the audience as if this were a John Cage sonata. In one such scene, audience members are left to wander on their own through passageways and small rooms, most of us coming to a place where a miniature projection of Canuso appears on the chest of a seated Dito van Reigersberg, then begins to travel up and down his arms and on to – or into – his head. The relationship of Alice to Reigersberg’s character is enigmatic, as is much of the plot.

    Canuso’s dancers beckon audience members to grab hold of strings; Alice cuts the strings; and we grab hold of the strings as the dancers try to pull us out of whatever world we are in. At one point, audience members become almost a part of the dance troupe. (I was a fortunate attendee of this show in progress last year, when audience members actually joined the dance; I’d love to see that section restored.)

    In the end, Alice seems to emerge from a dream. Nothing is clear and we are encouraged to use our imagination. "Is it unclear how you got here?” asks the closing song. “Tie a string around your finger, to remind you to forget."

    Normally, I dislike performances that ask the audience to join in. With this show we never feel manipulated or imposed-upon. Rather, we feel liberated.





 
 
 
 

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.