Alice in Wonderland pits femme icons against each other, but love wins in the end | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Alice in Wonderland pits femme icons against each other, but love wins in the end

Shakespeare By The Sea’s adaption of the classic brings musical stylings and lots of “antics and hijinx” to the outdoor stage

At the risk of dating myself, I must confess that as a child, I wore out my VHS recording of a live action version of Alice In Wonderland. I remember being equal parts horrified and intrigued by the insanity of it all; the unsettling riddle-speak, the unhinged characters and don’t even get me started on the Jabberwocky.

I fully believe that story lit not just my burgeoning fascination with the macabre, but more importantly, my staunch feminism. The Queen of Hearts rules with an iron fist—seizing authoritarian control of all of Wonderland and its bonkers inhabitants—while her lame bumbling husband plainly sucks and I’m always here for that dynamic.

So as a self-proclaimed Alice head, I love consuming her content in all of its permutations and combinations; and this summer presents a great opportunity to see a wild take.

Lewis Carroll’s fever dream brain child turned classic tale of Alice and her mind-bending adventures has been captivating readers and audiences for generations and now it’s taking to Point Pleasant Park in a fantastical musical version presented by Shakespeare by the Sea (SBTS).

This SBTS original production was first performed in 2012, then re-imagined in 2018 and now again in 2024. The latest edition is a mash-up of the previous two, redeveloped and rewritten over time.

This summer, Jade Douris O-Hara is back and playing Alice—she played a handful of roles in 2018 including Alice’s sister, the Dormouse and the Jabberwocky—and is excited to bring a childish glee to the main role this time around.

“I think it’s all really silly and really funny, but at the heart of it, it’s the story of a young person discovering the power of her own imagination,” says Douris O-Hara. “Even though Wonderland is both wonderful and terrifying—alternating at different times—Alice has to step up and be brave. In the end, we see a little girl who’s ready to grow up and grow into her sense of self.”

It comes in handy that Douris O-Hara is also the studio director at SBTS. In that role she runs the education programs and teaches kids all year round. She says she was able to harness that youthful spirit into the character—a transition she found to be particularly seamless for her.

On the other end of the spectrum is another feminine forcefield in the Queen of Hearts, played by Nigerian-born and Toronto-based actor Amaka Umeh. This is their first time taking to the outdoor set in Point Pleasant and they’re determined to bring some context to the reviled character with a penchant for decapitation.

“What’s been interesting for me is exploring why the Queen is the way she is,” says Umeh. “She’s had her heart broken and I'm interested in investigating what it means to be a person who can’t feel love, but can only feel rage and hate and how destructive that is to herself and everyone around her.”

As per usual, the two strong female characters are pitted against each other, but, like any good fairy tale, big lessons are learned and in the end, the Queen’s mortal enemy—Alice—ends up being the one to bestow her with the most incredible power of all, which is love.

click to enlarge Alice in Wonderland pits femme icons against each other, but love wins in the end
James Arthur MacLean
Jade Douris O-Hara plays Alice and choreographed the musical production.

“Of course the whole time she is mad at Alice—another femme queen— who has done nothing wrong!” says Umeh. “But she does eventually learn from Alice that you have to lead with your heart and go into the world with love and try to explore your relationships through that lens. It’s really girl power in the end.”

The show opens on Saturday and audiences can expect the narrative to be pretty true to form—psychedelic with elements of complete nonsense—but this version adds a new layer of chaos: singing.

“This is a full on musical, so expect a lot of singing, a lot of dancing and a lot of incredibly quick costume changes,” says Umeh. “You’ll see all the characters that you know and love and it’s very high energy, with high highs and low lows and all sorts of antics and hijinx.”

The movement and choreography of that hijinx was created by Douris-O’Hara herself, with a focus on helping the movement match the music so that audiences can see what they feel when they hear the songs.

“Because I have such a long history with this play, these songs have been in the backburner of my mind for like six years, so it’s been a fun process of years of just exploding ideas,” says Douris-O’Hara.

With only eight members of the company covering off every role in the show, most members are playing three or four characters, so the atmosphere behind the scenes is as chaotic as what’s happening on stage. The whole thing feels like a sprint for the cast, who are left at the end feeling “exhausted in a good way” according to the two stars.

I think audiences will feel the same.

Alice in Wonderland opens this Saturday at 7pm and will run through Aug. 31. Tickets are available at https://www.shakespearebythesea.ca/alice.

Julie Lawrence

Julie Lawrence is a journalist, communications specialist and intersectional feminist from Halifax, N.S. She is the Editor of The Coast Daily.
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