With leaves falling and Halloween around the corner, the Irondale Center in Brooklyn has the feel these days of a recreation-center haunted house: Strangely costumed actors usher visitors through an amorphous paper-mache forest, where curious snacks are offered and odder contraptions set in motion. No shivers are intended by New Georges Theater, however; their tongue-in-cheek “happening” opens the door onto a different kind of peculiar, with the company’s current production, AliceGraceAnon.
Not a rehab for girls with awkward names, the show splices Alice of the Looking Glass, Grace as in Slick (of Jefferson Airplane fame), and the Anonymous protagonist of a once racy, cautionary tale for teens. Accurately describing this oddball show is almost as perilous as playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts, even while—and perhaps because—the text, by Kara Lee Corthron, is stitched together by two common yet distinct threads: Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story and the altogether different iconic quality of the American ’60s. In real life, Carroll’s fantastical heroine inspired Slick’s hit about drug use, “White Rabbit,” a line of which became the title of Go Ask Alice, which made a splash in 1971 as the purported diary of an adolescent addict but would later be revealed as the work of the psychologist Beatrice Sparks. In Corthron’s play, this sometimes perplexing amalgam cobbled together by narcotics is a pretext for examining questions of women’s liberation from male oppression. “Twas brillig,” right?
Indeed, like guests at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, audiences of AliceGraceAnon are best advised to leave reason at the door. The production is the first in New Georges’ “Germ Project,” the goal of which is to make “BIG, crazy imaginative plays” by commissioning playwrights “to pursue their most ambitious impulses.” AliceGraceAnon rises to the occasion; Corthron imagines a psychedelic time-space telescoping where a rebellious Alice, a frustrated Slick, and the clueless Anonymous meet in the White Rabbit’s hole to compare notes on life under men’s thumb, whether as the fictional creation of a male or his unequal partner on stages both real and metaphorical.
Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni and her design team recycle a recognizable Wonderland fashioned from reclaimed plastic ponchos, old sheets, and faded artificial turf, the band The Tuned-In does a serviceable job as the long-grounded Jefferson Airplane, and the Spectacle Brigade of stage-hands and extras keeps the action moving around the three solid heroines (Teresa Avia Lim, Carolyn Baeumler, and Christina Pumariega, as AliceGraceAnon, respectively).
As an exploration of female empowerment, however, the production’s premise feels not only forced (for Corthron to make her point, Sparks becomes a man here) but also dated: Go Ask Alice no longer shocks even as a discredited memoir, and Grace Slick, while a pioneer on the all-male music scene of her day, has faded into the kaleidoscopic mists of two acid-rock hits. The play is punchiest in its depiction of a plucky, real-life Alice Liddell, who “writes back” at Carroll to reclaim her identity, but draws wearily on his much theorized, never proven pedophilia. To paraphrase the Virginia Slims ads also of the 1960s: Is this as far as we’ve come, baby?