Alice Books inspire play on Love and Grief

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There have become cultural touchstones. Countless films have been made on the Alice theme, so it is not surprising to find a new play inspired by the Lewis Carroll classics. The play in question is Alice and the World We Live In by the prize-winning Montrealer Alexandria Haber. It receives its world premiere run at the Centaur Theatre from Oct. 15 to Nov. 3.

Haber has borrowed freely from the upside-down world of the Alice books. Her Alice (Jane Wheeler) has experienced a personal tragedy that upends her life. Given the proliferation of deadly terrorist attacks around the world, her experience could be called part of the “new normal” when her husband is killed in such an attack. Centaur artistic and executive director Eda Holmes describes the play as “an active… and unsentimental treatment of grief.” Haber’s Alice experiences a reality that “can’t be true” when her world is shattered. Carroll’s Alice also feels this way after falling down the rabbit hole.

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Alice and the World We Live In finished second in Infinithéâtre’s 2017 Write-on-Q! competition. Part of the prize was a public reading. It was Holmes who asked Haber if she could refashion the original script with seven characters into what is called a two-hander – a play for two characters.

Over the last two years, Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal has financed three workshops of the play, with Imago Theatre’s artistic director Micheline Chevrier as dramaturg. Holmes, who judges Chevrier to be “very, very good,” notes that the dramaturg was “driving the story towards more clarity.” Alice’s late husband, who appears in the play, is named Ever (Daniel Brochu). This alone would suggest to many that this Alice is actually an allegory, a fact confirmed in the production’s background material.

At the beginning of the play, Alice stands frozen on a dangerous mountain pass, unable to move forward or back. According to the production notes, she is “suspended between multiple possibilities of what could have been and what is.” Director Holmes explains this is probably Alice’s letting her imagination go wild because of her intense grief. What the production hopes to do is show a parallel between Alice and ourselves. Opening our hearts provides the way out of such an impasse.

Haber has had her plays produced across Canada and in one case, abroad. In 2010, she won the Write-on-Q! competition for Life Here After. Another play, On This Day, played the Centaur Theatre in 2016. Mouth to Mouth, which Haber co-wrote with Ned Cox, was seen at the Montreal’s Fringe Festival in 2017, and was later put on in London, England by The White Bear Theatre.

Holmes became the artistic and executive director of the Centaur Theatre two years ago, after serving as associate director of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival from 2010 to 2017. She has won several awards for directing, including Dora Awards for the musical Little Mercy’s First Murder and the English-language premiere of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Tom at the Farm. Likewise, Chevrier, who works in English and French, and who is a director, dramaturg, and artistic director in her own right, has received many awards. In addition, she is a regular instructor at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

Actress Wheeler has performed many times at the Centaur, as well as across Canada; her acting credits include the major 2015 film Brooklyn. Brochu, likewise, is a seasoned actor who has traveled widely for his work, including in the United States.

The team responsible for Alice and the World We Live In includes the real-life couple of the singer/songwriter/violinist Anna Atkinson and multi-instrumentalist Alexander MacSween as sound designers. Holmes says that Alice’s sound and music together provide a descriptive or emotive experience and that “the play is about how our minds work.” Working with Holmes as assistant director is Gregory-Yves Fénélon. The director says she “loves being able to connect with a younger generation” this way. Holmes calls their collaboration a working alongside each other; she still maintains directorial control. Fénélon, a Haitian-Canadian in his twenties, has trained professionally in theatre and music and performed on Canadian and American national stages as an actor and solo musician. He graduates from Concordia’s acting program next spring.

The central conflict of Alice and the World We Live In is that the protagonist must learn to let go of her late, beloved husband and move on with her life. Of course, it is a universal struggle. The tone of the Centaur’s online preview is decidedly upbeat, letting us know that Alice can actually be quite funny.

Centaur Theatre is providing the general public with two occasions to find out more about the theatrical universe of Alice: a Preview Pre-show Convo, and a Sunday Chat-Up, featuring Montreal Gazette editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan in a discussion with the playwright. Attendees at the latter event get free refreshments, provided by Bonaparte Restaurant. For ticket holders, there are two post-show Talkbacks, Oct. 24 and 27, and a Saturday Salon.

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