Playwright Lily Blau speculates on one of the most controversial real-life relationships in literary history—that of the then 31-year-old Charles Dotson, better known as Lewis Carroll, and Alice Liddell, the 11-year-old inspiration for Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland—in her provocative new play The Missing Pages Of Lewis Carroll, now getting a superbly acted and directed (and gorgeous-to-look-at) World Premiere at Pasadena’s The Theater @ Boston Court.
Though Dodgson’s fascination with prepubescent Alice may indeed have been a grown man’s purely innocent delight in the notion of “childhood” at a time when children were to be seen and not heard, it’s hard not to see this obsession through 21st Century eyes, particularly since a bit of research reveals that a number of Carroll biographers have supposed Dodgson’s attachment to her to be either romantic and/or sexual.
Blau’s script (developed in collaboration with Sydney Gallas) takes as its point of departure a particularly fascinating bit of Lewis Carroll trivia, that (as press materials describe it) “upon Carroll’s death it was discovered that several pages of his otherwise immaculate journal had been torn out.”
Quite smartly, Missing Pages’ playwright allows us to come to our own conclusions about what actually happened during those “missing” days, and in fact my guest and I differed on our interpretation of a pivotal sequence. Equally smart is her decision, the reasons for which you will discover, to cast adult actresses as Alice, her 14-year-old sister Lorina, and younger sister Edith, three years Alice’s junior.
It is none other than the White Rabbit himself (a stand-in for Dodgson’s conscience?) who escorts us down Blau’s Rabbit Hole, in addition to standing in, ears and all, for the aptly-dubbed photographer Mr. Lapin, Charles’ editor Mr. MacMillan, and the writer’s Butler, a playwright’s conceit we discover quite soon on as Scenic Designer Extraordinaire Stephen Gifford’s set reveals the first of its multiple, often dazzling surprises.
With White Rabbit (Jeff Marlow) as our guide, playwright Blau introduces Charles/Lewis (Leo Marks) and us to Alice (Corryn Cummins), “Ina” (Erin Barnes), and Edith (Ashley Ruth Jones), and to their parents Henry (Time Winters), Dean of Christ Church (where Charles both studied and taught) and Lorina (Erica Hanranhan-Jones).
A visit to the Liddells’ “Deanery” has Charles captivated at first sight by their middle child, and before long he has gifted her with a signature blue-and-white Alice dress, the first of many outfits she will don for the ever more beguiled amateur shutterbug.
In real life, Alice was, if anything, more provocatively scantily dressed than we see her onstage @ Boston Court. Still, though Charles does avert his eyes when Alice changes into posing gear, it’s clear that he’d like nothing more than to gaze on the girl’s pink-and-whiteness. Then again, perhaps he would like something more than a mere look-see.
As playwright Blau delves deeper into what may have been in those titular missing pages, sound designer/composer John Ballinger, lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith, and above all video designer Keith Skretch combine their prodigious talents to take us on a vertiginous journey into what might be either fantasy or memory, the White Rabbit averring that memory is but “a vivid form of fantasy,” to which Charles responds that “fantasy is to memory what desire is to action.” You be the judge.
Abigail Deser’s imaginative, insightful direction makes it it abundantly clear that plays may well be worth reading but they are meant to be staged, director, designers, and a crackerjack cast combining talents to bring Blau’s words to extraordinarily vivid life.
Costume designer Garry Lennon outfits the entire cast in exquisite period costumes, Jenny Smith provides equally spot-on 19th-century properties (including a vintage camera and rabbit doll), and Stephen Ratliff scores too with his tiptop hair and makeup design.
Performances could simply not be finer, beginning with the always splendid Marks, whose eternally boyish good looks play savvily against Dodgson’s smarmier aspects to make it easy to see how (if Charles and Alice did indeed go all the way) his other-than-avuncular interests in young Miss Liddell might have gone unsuspected.
Cummins matches Marks every step of the way, giving Alice a quirky loveliness and childlike charm that may well mask a preteen’s budding sexual urges. That Alice may share similarities with the character Cummins played to universal acclaim in David Harrower’s harrowing Blackbird a few years back is a fascinating bit of coincidence.
Character actor supreme Marlow is a scene-stealingly eccentric White Rabbit along with several other terrifically performed long-eared roles. Winters is the personification of crusty English academia opposite a stunning (and stunningly gowned) Hanrahan-Ball, whose fantasy turn as Alice’s Red Queen is simply delicious. Barnes could not make for a lovelier Ina nor Jones for a more awkwardly endearing Edith.
Amy Cale Peterson is assistant director and Matthew Quinlan dramaturg. Raul Clayton Staggs is casting director. Dialect Coach Nike Doukas shares credit for the cast’s spot-on accents. Alyssa Escalante is production stage manager.
Known for its edgy programming choices, The Theater @ Boston Court maintains its reputation for keeping adult audiences on the edge of their seats with The Missing Pages Of Lewis Carroll. You’ll have much to talk about once the lights have gone back up and who knows? You may well seek out your childhood copy of Alice In Wonderland for an eyes-freshly-opened reread.
Understudies are Andrew Carter, Dennis Gersten, Grace Hinson, Meghan Lewis, Thaddeus Shafer, Cecelia Specht, and Natasha Warner.
The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.
January 31, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger