Lewis Carroll, who was an Oxford University mathematics lecturer, might have delighted in calculating the speeds that cascade through Synetic Theater’s darkly hallucinatory “Alice in Wonderland.” Here is the title character herself, spinning like a pinwheel. There are the legs of the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, detached from their body and doing a Cossack dance. Here are the unnervingly jolting gestures of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, who look a little like deranged windup toys as they preside over a teapot-littered table.
Movement expresses dream logic in this inventive and visually striking production, adapted by Lloyd Rose from Carroll’s oft-riffed-upon “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” with additional material from that book’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass.” Rose’s script, and the direction by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili, emphasize the more sinister aspects of the Alice books. There are some pauses for Carroll-derived wit and banter (unlike the wordless Shakespeare adaptations for which Synetic is best known, this show has dialogue), but the 100-minute production often seems to sweep along with the riptide speed of a stylish, quirky nightmare. (The show is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.)
Providing some tempering warmth is Alice, channeled with lively girlishness and a plummy British accent by Kathy Gordon. In her frilly dress and pinafore, this Alice looks like an image by John Tenniel, who famously illustrated Carroll’s books. She stands in relatively naturalistic contrast to Daniel Pinha’s surreal, mostly abstract set, dominated by a crazy forest of twisty, arching wires and enigmatic draped textiles.
A platform to the left represents Alice’s house in two rather creaky scenes that bookend the fantasy narrative. In these scenes, Rose (a former Washington Post theater critic) sets up some too-tidy parallels between Alice’s waking life and Wonderland’s ebulliently oddball story lines.
Those story lines involve such eccentrics as the Caterpillar (Vato Tsikurishvili); or Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Augustin Beall and Thomas Beheler), who in this telling are thuggish punks; or the Queen (a grimly imposing Renata Veberyte Loman), whose white leather gown is ornamented with red and black heads, in keeping with the character’s frequent “Off with their heads” commands. (Kendra Rai designed the wild costumes, and Colin K. Bills devised the suitably chimeric lighting.)
Providing continuity more or less throughout is Alex Mills’s prowling Cheshire Cat, who cuts a zany profile in his purple wig but occasionally displays normal feline behavior, such as playing with a ball of wool. Tori Bertocci’s White Rabbit, a humorous figure who periodically snacks on a carrot that she keeps tucked in one of her stockings, is also much in evidence.
In the Alice books, there’s always a piquant tension between surface lunacy and a sense of underlying meaning. That tension often makes itself felt in this production: The jerky movements of the Mad Hatter (Dallas Tolentino, radiating a splendidly demented vibe) and the March Hare (Justin J. Bell) seem to have something to do with the quarrel with Time that the Hatter describes. It’s as if these bizarre tea drinkers have been robbed of Time’s offshoot — continuity.
On the other hand, Rose’s reworking sometimes seems to inject just a little too much meaning. Why, in this adaptation, must Alice quickly come up with an actual answer to the Hatter’s riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Many of the production’s most beguiling touches are wordless or visual, though they derive added resonance from the spooky, shivery music and sound effects (Konstantine Lortkipanidze is the composer and sound editor; Thomas Sowers is the sound designer). Clever staging ideas abound. When Alice cries briefly in frustration, her tears are bright blue lights.
And in a sequence that evokes her wanderings through a mysterious hallway full of doors, the portals are conjured by shrouded dancers whirling around with right-angled rods. The effect is rather spectacular. You know you’re watching an ingenious piece of theater when a door can hold its own against the Cheshire Cat.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“Alice in Wonderland,” by Lloyd Rose, based on the writing of Lewis Carroll. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili; choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili; assistant directors, Irakli Kavsadze and Nathan Weinberger; props master, Jason Alpern; fight choreographer, Vato Tsikurishvili. With Zana Gankhuyag, Eliza Smith and Janine Baumgardner. 100 minutes. Recommended for ages 13 and older. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Tickets: $15-$60, subject to change. Through Nov. 8 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.