Alice Underground

Through the rabbit hole...Theater director Tom Segal has been through the rabbit hole and back. Well, nearly back. Through May 7, Segal oversees the Sonoma Community Center’s premiere production of former Sonoman Shann Nix’s ambitious musical fantasia Alice Underground.

Inspired by Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, the show is part psychosexual nightmare, part cathartic head-trip that finds an octogenarian Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Carrol’s famed titular character, left to die in a psychiatric hospital. Surrounded by hospital staff (who in her mental haze transform into the denizens of the Alice books) the elderly Alice begins to unpack the emotional baggage accrued from her lifetime of fame as an author’s personal obsession.

For Segal, mounting the original production was predicated on two notions: collaboration and interpretation.

“Collaboration I would say is one of the elements of an original piece. That’s an asset,” he says of the project, the music for which was composed by veteran composer Jef Labes. “Interpretation becomes a bigger part of it especially when the author is not present.”

Segal was brought in after Nix’s script had been completed, but had yet to be broken-down into
the pragmatic elements necessary to begin staging it.

“There was no map or format saying ‘this is how you should do it,’ but author suggestions of what she would like to see in terms of age, types of character or descriptions of the characters – those were in the script. I had to figure out how to break it down into scenes and decide what were ‘act one’ and ‘act two,’” explains Segal, who, as a rule, endeavored to maintain fidelity to Nix’s intentions.

“I personally always feel responsible to the author whether I’m directing or whether I’m a performer,” he says, though this process was complicated by the fact that the author, a former KGO radio personality, currently resides in Wales.

“Other than a few conversations and a few e-mails, I don’t exactly know what she wants other than what I’ve been able to gather from that,” Segal recalls.

To wit, the director relied on his training.

“From my training and my perspective in theater, you do what is written. If you’re going to do a departure from that, then it has to be very carefully chosen, in a way that pays respect to author’s intention,” he explains. “Sometimes you can take a script and go off into a completely different direction, use a script as a spring board to something else. That’s legitimate too. In this case, that isn’t what we were trying to do. In this case, I was trying to interpret the script that existed.”

That said, Segal did enjoy some liberty while trailblazing the new production.

“When you do an original production, you don’t have to follow what’s been done. You get to make things up as you go along. I’ve made some choices that are bizarre. They’re choice not on the beaten path but I think the script called for that,” he says. “It’s a twist of reality. It’s tough to pull that off if you want the audience to stay with you. They have to know when you’re going in and out of reality. You can’t just throw weirdness at them.”

And yet, “weirdness” is a defining feature of the often comic and occasionally harrowing story. Given the amount of teeth-bearing Alice and other characters endure, this production could alternately be titled “Malice in Wonderland.” The ad hoc psychedelia of the original Alice books is preserved and a sort of manic Rocky Horror Picture Show sexuality pervades much of the production (at one point, the White Rabbit, played confidently by Brandon Mears, dons heels and stockings and joins a burlesque number). Echoes of madhouse anti-war flick The King of Hearts and Broadway impresario Bob Fosse’s autobiographically-inspired All that Jazz abound as do elements of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf that likewise finds a character achieving redemption through madness.

As intended, looming throughout the production are unanswered questions about the nature of the relationship between author Carrol and muse Alice. The playwright does not directly accuse Carrol of inappropriate behavior, but a post-mortem tête-à-tête between the characters suggests a kind of acceptance if not forgiveness is in the cards.

“Alice has already died and she meets Lewis Carrol who has been dead almost 40 years in a spiritual realm where they work out the unfinished business of their relationship. Now they’re equals on par, it’s no longer an adult male and a pre-adolescent child. Now they’re both adults and able to communicate with each other and get real about who they were to one another and what it all meant and come to a peaceful conclusion to that,” explains Segal, who reminds that the socially maladjusted Carrol preferred the company of children — specifically girls, whom he often photographed — to that of adults.

“With his photographs, I believe his intentions were always artistic, I don’t see anything in them that’s pornographic. I think you really have to be looking under rocks to find his photos — at least the ones I’ve seen — in any way pornographic,” says Segal, “In terms of his relationship with these children and what happened behind closed doors, I can’t say, I wasn’t there — history knows. There’s no record of him doing anything inappropriate excerpt for having the inability to relate to adults and preferring the company of children, which most people find a bit odd.”

Like the playwright, Segal prefers to let the audience come to their own conclusions about Carrol, who through the course of the play, is judged by a peanut gallery of his own flawed creations, that suggests a sort of recrimination by his own psyche.

“Why did the author choose to have a trial scene in which Lewis Carrol is on trial for the pictures he took of children and for his behavior and his relationship with these underage girls? What’s the meaning of that, why is he on trial and in the end why does the author not draw any conclusions as to whether he did anything inappropriate or not? She doesn’t draw any conclusions, she just says ‘This is what happened.’ The characters in the book are putting him on trial and having fun with it in the lunatic way that they do,” explains Segal. “His characters are coming to judge him.”

Originally published in the Sonoma Valley Sun.