KPBS AIRDATE: September 29, 1993
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a fabulist and a fantasist. The imagination of the Victorian mathematician who, under the pen-name Lewis Carroll, created “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” has never been questioned. But his relationship with the 11 year-old Alice Liddell has. In an odd little off-beat musical, “Once On Summer’s Day,” the Theatre in Old Town addresses the question, but provides no satisfying answer.
Dodgson, who comes off as a rather stodgy academic, seemed to blossom in the presence of young girls, whom he idolized and photographed to possible excess. In the play, the real mother of the real Alice is quite concerned. So are the White Rabbit and the Duchess, who, with the Caterpillar and Mad Hatter, are Dodgson’s contrapuntal alter-egos. The Hatter, with a hairdo from “Eraserhead” (and played very fey), is the only one who provides dark encouragement to Dodgson in his efforts with Alice. The Caterpillar seems too confused to take a stand. Must be all that hookah-smoking.
The ensemble is tight, as usual in Old Town, and tautly, inventively directed by Paula Kalustian. The fantasy characters’ costumes are fabulous, and so is the well-utilized, picture-frame set. Arthur Perlman’s lyrics are very clever; Jeffrey Lunden’s music is more than passingly reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim, which means it’s not too lyrical, not very predictable and virtually unhummable.
The production is attractive, distinctive and very lively, but the story is disturbing, especially in these jaded days. The genius puzzle-maker proved to be a puzzle himself, in life and after death. It’s no small irony that Dodgson’s brilliant, satirical creations had a dark, enigmatic underside.
Don’t forget to keep the words ‘dark,’ ‘disturbing, ‘enigmatic’ and ‘satirical’ in mind if you go to see any Caryl Churchill play. “Top Girls” is no exception. SDSU takes another crack at Churchill, the dazzling, provocative British feminist playwright, but the result is not as successful as their gender-blasting “Cloud Nine.” Not due to the extremely competent cast, many of whom are veterans of the earlier Churchill production at SDSU. But this is tough stuff. It’s highly political, not at all sentimental.
The play opens with an elaborate fantasy rooted in the past, and ends with a little girl’s nightmare of the future. It’s a stark and somewhat scary indictment of the moral and ethical deficiencies of women whose notion of success is ‘making it’ in male terms in a male world. But for some reason, by the end of the play, director Mack Owen has encouraged a serious amount of screaming, and reduced three of his actresses to uncontrollable tears, which doesn’t seem to be the right take at all.
Owen’s casting decisions were impeccable, and the piece works just fine in the round, using just the stage of the Don Powell Theatre for both actors and audience. This play crashes through the glass ceiling and leaves everybody’s lives shattered. But a spare, steely reading, an ideal match for the setting, would have been much more powerful. Kudos to Owen and SDSU for trying. For the audience, Churchill provides an uneasy repast. Not duck soup to digest. But her plays should be given the taste-test by any serious theater connoisseur.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.