Germany's largest port city is best known for its cold and rainy weather and refined atmosphere. It seems to present an irresistible challenge to Robert Wilson and Tom Waits. Why else would they return here for a second time to stage a world premiere in such a chilly environment?
In 1990's "Black Rider," Wilson and Waits updated the Freischutz folk legend into a modern-day hero. "Alice," their new endeavor, is a stage musical based upon what amounts to a British national shrine--Lewis Carroll's wonderfully wacky wisdom-and-nonsense books "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."
They were the brainchildren of an Oxford mathematician whose real name was Charles L. Dodgson (1832-98). He was inspired by his intense attraction to 11-year-old vicar's daughter Alice Liddell, a passion that may not have expended itself in chaste photography of her budding womanhood. "I wish I could dare free her of all her clothes," he wrote in his diary.
This is not the material for a Christmas pantomime. (The show premiered last week and performances continue through January.) And Wilson is not faithful to Alice's original adventures. She is his heroine, Dodgson his hero. The show begins with many Dodgsons on stage, but only one voice (Stefan Kurt) sings "There's Only Alice" to the strains of a saxophone as if he were standing in a bar at 3 a.m. The sound is quintessential Waits, who wrote the music and lyrics along with his wife, Kathleen Brennan.
Alice (Annette Paulmann) falls down the rabbit hole and partakes from a bottle that says, "Drink me." She meets talking flowers, mice, cats, deer and Humpty Dumpty in a Wonderland in which there are no rules known to her. The Wicked Queen, Black and White Knights, Mad Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse are not paradise lost, but only a hallucination. Yet after the scene in which a slightly intoxicated Alice, dressed in a blood-red velvet gown and imprisoned by blood-red walls bitterly recalls her (imagined?) defloration, the audience cannot help but wonder if Dodgson violated the rules of Victorian and modern society.
This is the scene in which the superb costumes by Frida Parmeggiani first show their suggestive power. All characters with the exception of Alice have chalk-white faces that bring to mind the undead in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Their hairdos look as if they had been created in a wind tunnel. The White Sheep (Angelika Thomas) knits her own fleece, and the Caterpillar (Joer Holm) blows himself up to gigantic proportions during his preachings to Alice.
In "Alice," the set consists solely of mirrors and doors. When Alice shrinks, the effect is achieved by enlarging a door; when she reaches gigantic proportions, the door is shrunk. A huge telescopic camera lens is used by Wilson to illustrate Dodgson's sexual desires.
A collection of bizarre musical instruments evokes memories of the gramophone era of the Roaring '20s (and of recent Waits recordings), but the percussion section is thoroughly contemporary. Every creaking door and ripple of water has its own instrument. Slow waltzes alternate with ballads. The rousing song "Tabletop Joe" has its roots in vaudeville. "Somewhere" from "West Side Story" (and from an early Waits album) is amply quoted, as is Bing Crosby's "My Blue Heaven." The simple dialogues, written by New Yorker Paul Schmidt, untangle Carroll's abstruse puzzles.
Critics almost unanimously bemoaned the fact that the magic of "Alice" wears thin after the intermission:
Klare Warnecke of Die Welt in Bonn wrote: "The wonderfully poetic and absurd first hour does not automatically guarantee enchantment for the whole evening."
Werner Burkhardt of Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich: "Unfortunately, the evening does not always remain on the same high level of conviction. The surplus of images and intermezzos buries the plot. The suspense peters out. The lyrical becomes empty. Nothing really makes any progress, and after the intermission, even the stage drop changes into gray on gray."
Armgard Seegers of the Hamburger Abendblatt: "Captivatingly beautiful emptiness."
Gregor Edelmann of the national Bild gives "Alice" only three stars out of six: "Once, Wilson's images had depth, knew what darkness is: secrets, death. Today they are flat and accommodating. More commercial than cultural. 'Alice' is a fairy tale for adults. In other words, the avant-garde ends in kindergarten. Oh, we have lost one of the great! We weep for Robert Wilson!"
The audience seemed to think otherwise. Amid a small scattering of boos, it gave "Alice" a 30-minute standing ovation on opening night. The high point of the evening came when Waits jumped on stage, grabbed a microphone and as an encore gave a raspy rendition of the song "Reeperbahn," a tribute to Hamburg's red-light district. This drove the audience into a frenzy. Waits knew what he was doing. When the people of Hamburg get warmed up, they can be just as temperamental as anyone.