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BWW Review: ALICE IN THE PANDEMIC at White Snake Projects

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Fusing animation, live performances, and a dynamic libretto, White Snake Projects has a hit on their hands.

BWW Review: ALICE IN THE PANDEMIC at White Snake Projects

When performance spaces were shuttered, many companies shuttered their imaginations in solidarity with the rows of seats, choosing to hibernate until they could return to live, in-person events and allowing both to collect dust in the meantime. Others jumped at an opening for something new and, masked in good intentions and concerns for the well-being of artists and audiences alike, flooded our inboxes with an overabundance of links to haphazard programming and underwhelming outdoor oddities, thrown together as though a doomsday comet was coming instead of the slow tentacles of a pandemic. Cerise Lim Jacobs and her cohort of innovators at White Snake Projects chose instead to craft something that reinvents the presentation of opera and is scrupulously designed, meticulously shaped, and competently executed from the ground floor upward. Beginning in April, the team started crafting an artistic response to the universal tumult of this year, and this weekend they have unleashed the spoils of their labor on the world. "Very rarely in opera do you have sound engineers or CGI animators working with you," director Elena Araoz humbly volunteers during a talkback following the performance. "It wasn't about making a new show. It was about asking 'how do we recreate live performance in a digital space?'" adds creator and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs. Alice in the Pandemic: A Digital Opera in One Act in its fusion of remote performances by three live singers, the pristine resonance of VOICES Boston, accompaniment by the Victory Players, and a sumptuously textured animated landscape that immerses the audience within a first-person video game inarguably translates ephemeral elements of live opera to a computer screen. There are glorious imperfections, a few overly-simplified visual transitions, and some reassuring discrepancies with supertitles, but overall, the piece simply works.

The lure of adapting Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the potential it lends to creation of off-beat characters, idiosyncratic aesthetics, and vastly disparate locales. While Lewis Carroll's book is an enticing trap for a design team, promising fuel for explosive possibilities, too often it leaves adapters with too little kindling for even a spark to catch. While her friend Dorothy learns that there is 'no place like home' and Wendy comes to understand the benefits of growing up, Alice does little more than float from trippy scene to trippy scene. Broadway producers, Walt Disney animators, and Tim Burton have struggled to invent meaningful narratives for the jarring, prickly, and oppressively, immutably British inhabitants of Wonderland while injecting some semblance of a character arch for the tale's politely unresponsive heroine. Meanwhile, The Royal Ballet's Christopher Wheeldon, filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and immersive theatre companies around the globe have found success by throwing characterization and dynamic narrative to the wind and succumbing to an indulgently ocular retelling. Only André Gregory's 1970 staging for the Manhattan Project and Unsuk Chin's 2007 collaborative adaptation with David Henry Hwang for the Bavarian State Opera seem to infuse the narrative with any mote of psychological growth or commentary on the human condition.

Cerise Lim Jacobs' libretto joins the prestigious ranks of the latter two retellings while leaving plenty in tact for a team of designers, animators, and engineers to toss about. She wisely whisks us from an eerily empty subway car, through streets of an abandoned city, across a shadowy fairground, and into a cavern of warmly pulsating candles with minimal dallying about with recitative. Congruently, we join Carami Hilaire's Alice- in this version, an overworked emergency room nurse- as she bemoans a global wave of death before falling down the rabbit hole to a celebration of life. With nary a second to catch our breath, we see jubilant clips of the children from VOICES Boston leaping, bounding, and wriggling as an onslaught of animated rabbits is birthed. The libretto posits death against birth, trauma against comfort, and loss against growth in a way that feels disorienting, if crisply responsive to the times. Just as Alice tromps from adventure to adventure, we are tossed about from heightened sense to heightened sense, never once dropping down to the quotidian mundanity of some contemporary operas. If at times the lyrics seem overbearing in their clear perspective or the details of the plot seem contrived in their direct commentary, we can excuse the weightiness lent to verses which fossilize a universal mentality that has pervaded since at least April. Hilaire's soprano clarity carries the audience through the ebb and flow of the evening, hunching over on the bed in her apartment with tension palpable through a screen or breathily fusing her response to the young brood of rabbits with a hint of laughter.

In a smattering of roles, Eve Gigliotti creates an intimacy that somehow exudes through the white walls of her physical space and seems to enclose about the isolated viewers. To the dangerously stern "grown up" characters, she lends a flawed humanity that drips heavily from the voices of Alice's mother and grandmother but lingers in the corners of her mouth as the severe Queen of Hearts. Countertenor Daniel Moody is appropriately austere as the anthropomorphic White Rabbit, a character synonymous with punctuality. In this adaptation, his repeated belief that "time is elastic" is anything but cavalier and this epitomized, personified tension between urgency and disregard for the linear construction of time seems threateningly piercing when intoned in his disconsolately wistful timbre.

Moody and Gigliotti lend their facial structures to the animated versions of their characters, but the humanoid rabbit seems charming as he Charlestons and tour jetés and the Ice Queen seems more alive thanks to Gigliotti's familiarly chiseled cheek bones and nose. Shielding this piece from the rancor against Tom Hooper's Cats film, the visual inclusion of the performer voicing the character allows an increased level of nuance, née humanity for the animation. As one audience member commented, the 'puppets' seemed endearing. Because the characters were generated using technology which captured the singers' facial movements, one could argue that a version of puppetry is being employed, one that smacks of Julie Taymor's penchant for showing puppet and puppeteer and allowing the audience to fuse the two into one.

Comments before and during the livestream allowed audience members to sound-off with their excitement and location, interact with artists involved, and even ask why certain users kept saying "toi". This feature- along with a place to submit questions which salvaged the Zoom talkback from being an exercise in reluctance- highlights and responds to White Snake Project's belief that opera should be accessible for all. While we can permit a certain level of romanticization for the halcyon days of live performance, I refuse to concede that we have lost our ability to connect with each other. I don't recall the last live performance I attended where I turned to a stranger behind me and said, "Hi. I'm Andrew from Roslindale and I can't wait to see this show!" But certainly it is something I hope to do some day as these brief introductions seem to catapult us on a journey together.

Alice in the Pandemic features a stellar libretto, polished performances, and a cohesive, engaging visual world. Araoz's hand is successfully imperceptible (a major challenge in a digital offering, but a testament to the necessary subservience to this whirlwind narrative), Jorge Sosa's score is rapturous (if too elusive to be distinctly memorable). Both allow Jacobs' language to steal the show sans detraction. As an evening's entertainment, this should not be missed (my foster cat was even delighted by the bouncing baby bunnies). As an experiment in digital performance, this should not be ignored.

Get tickets to the final performance in this run on Tuesday, October 27 at 7:30 here.

Photo credit: Curvin Huber

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From This Author Andrew Child