Laurie Thomas’ Mad Hattr is a jabberwocked reenactment of the biography of Charles Dodgson, the English mathematician, photographer and writer who, under the name Lewis Carroll, authored what are quite possibly the most beloved works of children’s literature ever composed in the English language. For decades, numerous societies and journals have analyzed the impact of this mysterious man, but despite recent scholarship based on new discoveries about his life, Dodgson remains a big question mark, a riddle just as mind-twisting as his books and poems.
Thomas’ play—the world premiere of which runs one more week at the Cell Theatre—attempts to explore these mysteries. In many regards, it succeeds. Before you even get to your seat, you know you’ve entered a magical place. The entrance to the fabulous set designed by Richard Hogle is framed with narrow bands of light. The interior is likewise roofed with chords of illuminated color. Flickering video screens mounted on each wall of the theater-in-the-round play as large a role as any human character. Likewise, the elaborate costumes and props indicate that much time and attention has gone into making every detail just right.
In this play, the historical characters in Dodgson’s life behave much the way the fantastical characters behave in Carroll’s stories. Ellen Herschel is a 14-year-old from Albuquerque Academy who plays Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Carroll's famous heroine. She's perfect in the part. Herschel has the wide-eyed, otherworldly demeanor of the Alice we all recall from John Tenniel’s original illustrations. Justin Lenderking’s portrayal of Dodgson is earnest and strange, but it fits into the twisted comedic mood of the production. Other performances are also strong, especially Beth Bailey as Alice’s mom, Lorina, and David Lang as Alice’s sexually confused father, Henry. Aaron Worley also does a funny absurdist turn as Arthur Stanley, Henry’s friend.
One of the best aspects of the show is the ingenious manner in which it explores Dodgson’s love of photography. The four video screens flash images as Dodgson photographs them, a clever illusion that adds to the psychedelic ambiance. This trick also subtly examines some of the controversies in Dodgson's life story, such as his nude photographs of children and his possible tendency toward pedophilia.
The play is brillig and mimsy. In its best moments, it gyres and gimbles in the wabe. Still, Lewis Carroll’s genius was his knack for producing clear, unmuddled nonsense. His stories and poems remain popular to this day because they are as lucid and meticulous as they are zany.
Sadly, while the original music provided by the Playroom ensemble is excellent, it’s also too loud. In many cases, it muffles the dialog rather than providing a fitting soundtrack to enhance it. I felt like I missed several quick exchanges between characters, and this is a shame.
Another problem is that it’s about as difficult to make sense of Dodgson’s life as it is to make sense of his stories. Unfortunately, near the end of the play, Thomas seems to make the mistake of trying. For my tastes, the show would have worked better if it had sustained the lunacy from start to finish.
Still, this is an enjoyable production, and an admirable and ambitious experiment. Thomas' script and Jacqueline Reid's direction succeed in creating an irresistible fairytale about a man who still looms large in our imaginations more than 100 years after his death.