It seems these days that we are always waiting.
Waiting for the shutdown to be over. Waiting for the vaccine to be available. Waiting for test results. Waiting for life to be normal again — if we remember what normal is like.
That’s one of the reasons Mad Horse Theatre’s remarkable show about what happens before Alice arrives at the Mad Hatter’s tea party hits so close to home. The characters in the 90-minute original play, “Waiting for Alice,” are doing just that — waiting for the elusive girl from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to arrive.
The production is quintessential Mad Horse — edgy, provocative, thought provoking, original and entertaining. It is why this small company is the best in Maine at what it does — produce plays that compassionately examine and illuminate the enduring aspects of the human experience.
The Mad Hatter (Zack Handlen) and the March Hare (Marie Stewart Harmon) prepare more and more tea, fold the napkins again and again and constantly move chairs around the table. The Cheshire Cat (Tyler Costigan) peers down on them judgmentally and inquires, “What’s an Alice?” And, the occasionally awake Dormouse (Kat Moraros) struggles to remember the words to Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.”
It all looks and feels terribly familiar to the audience — a looking glass view of our lives over the past two years.
But playwright Allison McCall wasn’t inspired to write her absurdist play during the pandemic. The idea took root in 2014 when was directing a children’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” and the young actors began wondering what went on before the guest of honor arrived.
“Waiting for Alice” evolved from there with a hefty influence from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” a classic in which two characters pass the time while waiting for a man who never arrives. McCall’s characters speculate, argue and challenge each other about what is real and what is remembered in a way that is reminiscent of Beckett’s dialogue.
Director Chris DeFilipp and his design team of Connor Perry (set), Anna Halloran (costumes), Blaise Garcia (lighting) and Ryan McGowan (sound) create a wonderland on the stage. An almost life-size tree with a branch, where the Cheshire cat sits and watches, shades the table that dominates the set. Green stips of fabric dangle from the ceiling looking like vines. Cut up cards appear like leaves on small branches.
The costumes are eye-popping and whimsical at the same time. The lighting creatively illuminates the action and McGowan’s original music is a constant reminder that something is amiss in Wonderland.
Harmon’s excitable March Hare is a bundle of pent-up energy, comforted by the tea party ritual. Her portrayal reflects a bit of Alice’s curiosity and tenaciousness. Her hare is the joyous soul of the show, always ready and able to wait some more for Alice.
The Mad Hatter is the heart of the production, and Handlen wears it on his sleeve. The actor deftly balances the character’s love for the March Hare and the Dormouse while trying to bring order to chaos. Handlen also aptly parries with the Cheshire Cat without being gouged by his cynicism.
Moraros gives Dormouse a ditzy charm. She descends on the tea party like an ancient aunt unsure of what she remembers. Her recitation of bits and pieces of “Jabberwocky” are painfully delightful as the audience joins Moraros in trying to remember the nonsense poem.
The acerbic Cheshire Cat may be the brains at this party. Costigan’s feline is certainly the catalyst for the play’s central crisis over who could or should leave the tea party to search for the perpetually late Alice. At times, Costigan seems to bat the other characters about the stage as a cat plays with toys filled with catnip.
Costigan is known in Greater Bangor for his work with True North Theatre in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” and Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and with Ten Bucks Theatre in William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
His move to southern Maine in 2020 was a blow to Penobscot County theater lovers but a boon to the Portland talent pool. Costigan’s skill at merging into an ensemble are well-suited to Mad Horse’s penchant for producing shows that require casts to perform as one as in “Waiting for Alice.”
“Waiting for Alice” is performed Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 27 at Mad Horse Theatre, 24 Mosher St., South Portland. Reservations are recommended and COVID-19 protocols are in place. Theatergoers pay what they wish at the end of the show. For information, visit madhorse.com or call 207-747-4148.