What do you do with your existential frustration?
If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with.
But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!
From last weekend to this, I took in two plays that both sprang from the same premise: our modern world warps us.
“Well, then, it’s hopeless. We should end it all,” Matthew Zrebski’s Carnivora bleakly bemoans.
“Ah! Then we might as well party!” Shaking The Tree’s We’re All Mad Here exclaims.
Mind you, those aren’t direct quotes, just the sentiments I took away—what I imagine the plays might say if they were people. Oh, wait—one of them pretty much is. We’re All Mad Here is, if not exclusively, at least predominantly conceived and performed by Matthew Kerrigan, in homage to Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.
And why is Carroll’s work so timeless? Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan “Gulliver” Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.
Carroll did, after all, hail from the British Empire at the height of its occupation of other nations. For Brits at the time, “exploration” meant the imposition of British ways on foreign peoples whose customs seemed, to the Brits, strange. Through his anti-hero Alice, a prim English explorer who’s clearly wandered beyond her comfort zone, Carroll demonstrates the limits of his own people’s cultural understanding. Whenever she’s confronted with the unknown, Alice forges bravely forward, manners-first—but she gradually discovers that her so-called “manners” are only currency among like-minded company, and that among strangers they fall flat. The more frustrated Alice gets, the more unpredictably the characters around her behave, refusing (The nerve!) to greet her as a liberator. However reasonable she feels she’s being, she can’t win an argument. However courteous she tries to act, she’s perceived as rude. Eventually, she just has to surrender control and immerse herself in…Wonder. As bizarre as its scenes may be, Alice in Wonderland is realistically political.
Not a storyline per se, All Mad is instead a series of vignettes in various performance styles, interspersing monologues with silent interludes of mime and semi-aerial acrobatics. The spoken material, too, is a grab-bag, including excerpts from Carroll, personal confessions from Kerrigan, and even a curated collection of those internet-borne soliloquies popularly known as celebrity tweets. Like the works of Carroll, Mad delivers its philosophies through a warped lens of whimsy, and relies heavily on the element of surprise to keep you engaged.
Hence, to give too much detail about the scenes could threaten future audiences’ enjoyment. Suffice to say they vary, and Kerrigan carries his audience through them like a master performer. One scene is designed for spoiling: the Queen of Hearts vignette, where Kerrigan, decked out in a wall-mounted “robe” that’s both iconic for the character and (if you want to get Freudian) pungently pudendal, insists that the audience take his (her?) picture, linking the diva characters of Carroll’s time to the celebrities in our contemporary midst.
In another sequence, Kerrigan assesses a ladder as if it were a foreign object whose use had yet to be discovered. Whether a nod to surrealism—”Ceci n’est pas une ladder”—or a harkening back to each of our pre-verbal childhood phases, this part of the show effectively (if temporarily) de-programs the audience from our collective modern condition of cynicism and distractibility, coaxing us into focusing with ever-fresher eyes…
…which brings me to the other timeless themes from Carroll’s writings: self-examination, and the questioning of everything you thought you knew. Alice travels through Wonderland, frequently stopping to remark that she feels “not quite herself,” and undergoing both purposeful and accidental changes to her very person. She grows. She shrinks. She fits in, then outgrows. She hears language with new suspicions: A raven is nothing like a writing-desk. Why should there be such a thing as “mock turtle soup,” unless there’s such a creature as a “mock turtle?” Fresh perception of self enables fresh assessment of world, which leads to the conclusion that the world often makes less sense than it should.
In essence, Shaking the Tree, artistic director Samantha Van der Merwe and Kerrigan have arranged for us a magic mushroom trip—a journey through confusion to new lightness and childlike clarity. A regression session.
“Psychobabble aside, will I like it?” you ask.
You very well may. It’s not for me to say. I enjoyed it immensely. I’d even suggest it to children (who can handle hearing swearing) as young as 12. With nary a dull moment and many a silly-yet-meaningful flourish, I’d say it’s worth exploring.
We’re All Mad Here runs through February 25 at Shaking The Tree Theatre.