For the last month, I’ve been down the rabbit hole. That is, I got back into acting and did a local performance of Alice in Wonderland for a community theater group.
Now, it wasn’t Broadway or even Lewis Carroll for that matter. It’s an adaptation that puts a group of actors on the hunt for a girl to play Alice. They just ask her to pretend along with them and to Wonderland they go. For my part, I was the leader of the actors and also The King of Hearts.
I haven’t acted on stage in about 10 or 11 years. I gave it up along with all acting in order to settle down and have a full time job. I simply couldn’t juggle it, work, and life. But in light of recent events, I thought it would be nice to do a small show, about 18 rehearsals, and five performances. I haven’t been this tired in a long time. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a kids’ show is easier. It’s not the case.
But somewhere, in all the delirium of exhaustion and lack of sleep, I had a thought. What if we’re looking at Alice the wrong way? We all know the story. Alice, a little girl in England, longs for something unusual to entertain her during her doldrums of lessons and boring life. She follows a white rabbit into a hole and ends up in Wonderland where nothing makes sense. All the while, the residents of Wonderland give her exactly what she wants, mostly to her dissatisfaction. But is it all in her head? And… who is actually being forced to do something they don’t want?
So, one of the ideas we, as actors, thought about during the show is how sadistic we really are. The characters NEED an Alice and when they find one, they don’t exactly ask her to play along. They kind of rope her into playing their game. They’re pretty much torture her with nonsense for an hour until she breaks and goes along with it. Granted, by the end of OUR play she is the one calling the shots, the Queen’s gruff and psychotic demeanor softens as she forgives the Knave for stealing her tarts, and Alice returns to her world which has been there all along as we were all just pretending. Still, the amount of crap we throw at an unsuspecting Alice all because she “asked” for it is rather sociopathic. But what if we’re the ones who are being directed?
By the end of the run, I had developed some pain in my knees from a particular scene where we pretend to be the rabbit hole, swirling about Alice. Every so often, crouching down for her to deliver a line, we end with “Is she almost there?” Giving that line I felt like, “Enough is enough, my poor knees can’t take too much more of this.” The director actually wanted to re block the scene so that I wasn’t in pain.- She didn’t realize all of my perceived difficulty with that scene was acting. I hammed it up just for that line to come across as a game changer. In the next scene, Alice complains about being too large to fit through the door to the garden and starts to cry. We all look at each other in disgust and roll our eyes at her dramatic crying to which we give her a handkerchief. Once again, Alice has the power and we are just going through the motions to satisfy her. Those two moments made me think, “What if we’re all in an asylum and Alice is some sadistic puppeteer forcing us to endlessly pretend to be these characters every day just to appease her psychosis?” It hearkened back to another show I was familiar with back in college, Marat/Sade, also called The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The title alone sounds sadistic, right? Now, I am not trying to say that the depiction of class struggle and human suffering can be compared to Alice in Wonderland but the idea of a play within a play and the sadistic tendencies of Sade directing inmates to perform for his amusement do. Think of the little girl who forces a parent into having a tea party all the time, slowly driving them mad like the March Hare or Mad Hatter.
My thoughts are not entirely original, I’m sure. Other plays, movies, and television shows have questioned what is real and what is madness? It’s a trope called Schrödinger's Butterfly.
- A direct reference is The Matrix where Morpheus uses the red and blue pill to signify Neo’s choice of leaving the fake world for the real one.
- American McGee’s Alice was a video game released 15 years ago that supposed that Alice was locked up in an asylum after witnessing the death of her family post Through the Looking Glass. However, the character leaves to return to Wonderland.
- Total Recall (1990) asks the question, “Are you sure your life is real?” After visiting a place that sells dreams as reality, Schwarzenegger’s character unlocks a memory of his alternate life. Now, he can’t tell which is real, his boring life or the one where he’s a spy on the run from evil corporate giants.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Normal Again did a stint where Buffy was infected by toxins from a monster that caused her to hallucinate that she was really locked up in an asylum and that her entire career as a Slayer, her friends, and all the supernatural events of six seasons were all in her mind. She has been in a state of catatonia for six years with a brief period of lucidity right about the time she died in the show’s fifth season finale.
- Taming of the Shrew is a bit of a Schrödinger's Butterfly where a drunk is put into a performance of a play and is led to believe what he is a part of is real life.
- Revolution used the nanotechnology as a way of convincing certain people that they were living in a Utopian dream world. The dream would was a way to get them to give up specific information that could help the nano survive.
There are plenty more.
What madness there could be with an idea that our daily lives are the dream and our dreams are our reality? Or further yet, that someone else is pulling the strings and our lives are the figment of the imagination of someone else, kind of like Taming of the Shrew or St. Elsewhere.