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It's magic and nonsense with 'Alice in Wonderland'

“Alice in Wonderland” is magic, a fantastical production that excites and bewilders.

This jewel of literary nonsense was written by Lewis Carroll in 1865 and was adapted for the stage by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus in 1932. Sara Bruner, in four seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and in her debut as director, keeps true to the 1932 production in a show that opened recently in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

The story is an old one, beloved by many and long a part of popular culture and Western consciousness. Alice follows a rabbit down a hole, finds her way into a beautiful garden where she experiences scores of peculiar events and countless anthropomorphic beings.

OSF’s 2019 “Alice in Wonderland” is not the 1951 Disney production, with animated characters that threaten but do not frighten. Instead, it’s a close-up, real-life look at identity, curiosity, fear and courage. This Alice is no small, slender Goldilocks in crinoline and stockings drowsing under a tree. Instead, this Alice is Emily Ota, dark-haired and muscular, dressed in patchwork overalls. Ota is no shrinking violet and is ready for almost anything that the alter-world can throw at her.

Where an 1865, 1932 or even a 1951 Alice might politely suggest, quarrel or refuse, Ota’s Alice in 2019 is defiant, even when she doesn’t know which way is up.

Outsized and colorful enough to see easily from afar, the odd figures devised from Lewis Carroll’s stories are realized by Helen Q. Huang, OSF’s resident costume designer, as exaggerated caricatures of John Tenniel’s classic illustrations. Costuming is extravagant, larger-than-life and amazing to behold. Shyla Lefner departs from her more formal roles in earlier OSF productions, and her long White Rabbit ears quiver as she runs about with nervous, frantic energy. The five birds in the Caucus Race have wire-frame features and brilliant plumage — Katy Geraghty is a most marvelous Egret, shaking and shimmering in anxious performance. The queens and kings and knights and cards and gryphons and frogs and fish are spectacular in every way.

Danforth Cumins as the Mad Hatter is Johnny Depp’s doppelgänger, a bewildering confusion of speech and actions and so well suited to the March Hare played by Eddie Lopez and tall, thin Cristofer Jean as the sleepy, silly Dormouse in the Tea Party scene. Brent Hinkley channels a grown-up, drugged out Bart Simpson as the Caterpillar and thank you, Lauren Modica, for a most ingenious casting and performance as the Cheshire Cat.

I wanted to see a rounder, fatter Humpty Dumpty fall from the wall and break into pieces, but David Kelly is compact and trim, and the drop from the third level is pretty hazardous, so never mind. This OSF production makes real all of my favorite nonsense characters and preposterous Wonderland incidents.

Because the OSF production is both “Alice in Wonderland” and Carroll’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass,” we are treated to the Jabberwock’s brillig and slithy toves that gyred and gimbled in the wabe as well as Kate Mulligan and Daniel T. Parker reciting the Walrus and the Carpenter’s poem. I wondered how many in the audience learned these set pieces in grammar school and to this day can proclaim them from memory. Carroll also explores the ancient enigmas of third-grade life, as there’s not an “Alice” character who can add, subtract, multiply or divide, much less calculate the word problems posed by the exercises or answer any of the ridiculous riddles.

Set design is minimal in the 2019 OSF production, perhaps because of the large and active ensemble cast and also perhaps because “Alice in Wonderland” is one of three OSF productions that will also be performed at the Mountain Avenue Theatre this summer. Richard Hays, in his 62 seasons at OSF, designed both and so will have taken into account production needs and values in his work. Hoops and L-shaped sticks of varying sizes create the illusion of size and proportion as Alice eats and drinks, shrinking small and growing large. These devices effectively suggest physical change easily and efficiently, but for the most part, props are minimal, and the production focuses on the characters and narrative of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.

Logic, mathematics and language puzzles are everywhere in “Alice in Wonderland.” Lewis Carroll was an Oxford College mathematician and played with these throughout the text. Even more wonderful than reading these is seeing them all acted out on stage with voice, full gesture, movement and costumes. Spoken in plain English and not the more convoluted language of Shakespeare more than two centuries earlier, the audience can fully appreciate the genius of Carroll’s writing thanks to the virtuosity of the OSF players.

I think I’ll go again to see “Alice in Wonderland” this season, and next time I won’t be thinking hard about meaning and symbolism and intent. I’ll just get lost in the nonsense.

“Alice in Wonderland” runs about two and a half hours and will be performed in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through July 26 and from Sept. 12 to Oct. 12. The play will be performed at the Mountain Avenue Theatre, 201 S. Mountain Ave., Aug. 1 through Sept. 7. In addition to evening performances, some matinees will be offered during this time frame at the Mountain Avenue Theatre. Some children (grades 4 and 5) in the audience found the production confusing and a little scary even with advance explanation and context. For more information and to buy tickets, see osfashland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Miriam A. Laube (Red Queen), left, Emily Ota (Alice) and Robin Goodrin Nordli (White Queen) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Alice in Wonderland." Photo by Jenny Graham / OSF