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When the surroundings steal the show
Philly Fringe 2021: EgoPo Classic Theater presents Dane Eissler and Jenna Kuerzi’s Alice: not your child’s wonderland
You don’t need to travel down the rabbit hole to experience Alice: not your child’s wonderland, the opening production of EgoPo Classic Theater’s Awakenings and Transformations season, also presented as part of the Fringe Festival. You just need to get to Glen Foerd.
In fact, the 30,000-square-foot mansion, situated on 18 acres in Torresdale, upstages the main event. Be sure to arrive early and tour the manicured grounds, take in panoramic views of the Delaware from the verandas, and appreciate the stunning collection of paintings and decorative art on display.
The performance itself, a loose adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic by Dane Eissler and Jenna Kuerzi, takes place in a semi-enclosed tent in the rear of the property—the kind that might be employed for a wedding reception. Eissler creates a pleasantly exaggerated facsimile of a grand garden and estate in the playing area, which Cory Williams lights in candy colors. Still, the sequestering seems like a missed opportunity. It also falls prey to the traps of an elemental staging, with patchy sound design and uncomfortable seating.
Found spaces often work best when they’re fully integrated into the production. At several points, I was reminded of another Fringe entry, Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s Mary Rose from 2018, which brilliantly used the desolate manor house and spooky graveyard of the Woodlands to tell its ghost story. Since Alice depicts a neglected child who loses herself in a fantasy world while her distracted parents host a garden party, it would make sense to move the action around the property, as our heroine descends farther down into the trippy world of Mad Hatters and Cheshire Cats.
In general, Eissler and Kuerzi don’t make enough of that framing device. Instead, they render the conventional Carroll narrative through unconventional means. This can be amusing, especially in the company’s use of quirky props to create the fantastical characters of the underworld. The image of a mock turtle created from a plastic wading pool and several swim noodles is one I won’t soon forget, and I appreciated the creativity with which Eissler handled the Queen of Hearts’ bloodlust for beheadings.
An adult reckoning?
Yet overall, this reworking is overlong and meandering, often rehashing the same themes with only minor variations. Although Kuerzi’s Alice hardly leaves the stage, she also rarely feels like the focal point. Her desire to dive down the escape chute provided by the rabbit hole remains underexplored, with more time spent on the whimsical inhabitants of the alternate universe. This allows for some big, campy characterizations from the game supporting cast, but it also leaves the central narrative somewhat rudderless.
That’s a shame, because Kuerzi is everything you could want for an Alice. She conveys childlike innocence without being cloying, and when she seems irritated, her attitude transitions effortlessly to teenage insouciance and snark. I wanted to understand her motivations and empathize with her feelings of being trapped.
Similarly, while Maryruth “MR” Stine suggests a troubled inner life beneath the gregarious surface of Alice’s mother, they can only flesh out the complicated parental relationship so much. Stine is a hoot, though, as the Queen of Hearts, dressed in a spectacular black-and-white jumpsuit with flowing scarlet cape. (Scott McMaster designed the uniformly superb costumes.)
EgoPo’s revisal might not be your child’s wonderland, as the subtitle suggests, but it also doesn’t come across as an adult’s reckoning with the work’s darker themes.
What, When, Where
Alice: not your child’s wonderland. By Dane Eissler and Jenna Kuerzi. Directed by Eissler. EgoPo Classic Theater. $32-$50. Through September 30, 2021, at Glen Foerd, 5001 Grant Avenue, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or Egopo.org.
Proof of full Covid-19 vaccination is required to attend. The performance takes place in a semi-enclosed outdoor tent. Masks are encouraged but not required during the performance.
The Glen Foerd grounds and performance area are wheelchair-accessible.
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