Step into the Mad Horse Theatre this month and enter a lush woodland strangeness and a time loop.
Long green fronds and leaves made of playing-cards dangle from a thick, gold-trunked tree. Songbirds call and respond twinklingly from above. A pink-clothed table is laden with a cacophony of cups and teapots. And splayed out among them is a creature with a big red bow, sleeping away the pre-curtain minutes.
This is the March Hare (Marie Stewart Harmon). Soon, a pair of pink-panted legs emerge from under the table, then resolves as a hardy hatted gent (Zack Handlen). You know who he is. And you already know what it’s time for, what it’s always time for here. All they lack is their famous young guest.
Without her, the Tea Partiers of Wonderland find themselves existentially hamstrung in “Waiting for Alice,” a smart absurdist dramedy by Mad Horse Company member Allison McCall.
After receiving workshop productions at PortFringe 2015 and in Mad Horse’s 2020 By Local series, the ensemble show now receives its first full production under the direction of Chris DeFilipp. Now antic, now contemplative, “Waiting for Alice” is a lyrical and madcap mashup of Lewis Carroll, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett that ponders time and ritual, reality and illusion.
As Hare and Hatter wait for Alice, they bicker with the volatile intimacy of Beckett’s Gogo and Didi; like the old couple in “The Chairs,” they set out stools for their long-awaited guest. And in the meantime, they entertain, menace, and quiz each other. What or who is an Alice? Is Alice Time itself? Has Hare or has Hare not washed the cups?
They’re soon reunited with the Dormouse (Kat Moraros), who is delivered by the imperious, insinuating Cheshire Cat (Tyler Costigan, in a silvery smock). These characters offer Hare and Hatter both entertainment and some unsettling thoughts, as the Dormouse tells of the Jabberwock (a stellar turn by Moraros), and the Cheshire Cat provokes them with questions about existence and dreams.
“How do you run from something that’s in your head?” he asks. “We don’t run,” says Hare. “We just move to the next spot.”
The ensemble navigates all this with great pacing, satisfying little loops of rises and resolutions, and fine physical comedy through Connor Perry’s sublime and quirky scenic design (Erica Murphy served as movement consultant). They tumble off the table, scurry under it, clutch each other in stylized dread, slather some butter on a playing card, and scramble anew to move the tea things around. The time is always 6 o’clock. But is it really? What’s really going on at this tea party?
McCall makes an ingenious choice in bringing Ionesco and Beckett to bear on the conundrum of the Tea Partiers. The three texts refract each other’s lights with winking comedy and eerie familiarity. Abundant allusions, including full lines of dialogue, feel like both homages and fun little Easter eggs.
An especially good one involves Hatter’s hat: Just as the verbal high jinks of Beckett’s Lucky requires him to wear a hat, Hatter goes creepily somnolent when Hare steals his own, then moves him around as if by invisible strings.
Hare becomes a pivotal character in this Wonderland quandary, and Harmon brings her a bright, affecting candor. The end brings a void-opening turn for her, with many concerned gazes trained on her and some complicated revelations about the reality of this tea party. This final sequence feels convincingly fraught, but it also feels a little long; it might gain in poignancy with more distillation.
“Waiting for Alice” is a richly imagined and deeply felt mediation on timeless questions. It’s also a love letter to theater itself, as an outlet for grappling with the curious problem of our existence – a conundrum that grows, as we all know all too well, ever curiouser.
Charismatic old-timer Harry Townsend (Will Rhys) is thrilled for a visit from his grown son Alan (James Noel Hoban). But they’re already at odds almost as soon as Alan steps in the door of Harry’s lake house, in “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” a comedic crucible of father-and-son dynamics.
Stiff, worried, and judgy in a brown suit, Alan immediately inspects the kitchen, clocks the stack of cracker boxes and piles of papers, and wonders peevishly, “What happened to the counter?”
He has different goals for this visit than charismatic widower Harry, who wants to drink Scotch and tell lewd stories all week. As Harry announces gleefully, “We’re going to bond, Alan. And that means you’re going to have to listen to everything I say.” Cue a quick handshake competition. And so the week begins.
Before it’s over, they’ll reckon with both with their past and the ailing Harry’s uncertain future. Good Theater presents a wry and moving regional premiere of George Eastman’s comedy, under the direction of Brian P. Allen.
Rhys and Hoban have a great “Odd Couple” rapport, an intimate prickliness. As Alan settles in at the lake house, with its deep green walls and pine trim, so does a pattern: Harry acts out and provokes Alan – by recalling a place that he made furtive love with Alan’s mother, by explaining about all the pizza boxes under the bed. Alan then sighs, shakes his head, straightens up, and gives Harry a tired look. The parent-child reversal is complete. “I’m a toddler,” Harry even says, of his cane-aided locomotion. “I toddle.”
As the two circle and poke each other, Hoban makes fine work of modulating Alan’s stiffness. Alan lights up suddenly, beautifully when he looks out to the dock. He tamps his petulance back down again and again until it finally surges up in real hurt and old grievances. As it becomes clear what Alan wants for Harry – to move into a retirement community – he and Rhys split our sympathies in rich ways.
And Rhys is a riot as Harry, smirking and chortling, delivering his dirty-old-man routine with wit and relish. “What do you want to know about oral sex?” he asks his 40-something son expansively. He advises: “Risk always hardens a boner, my son.” Toddle though he may, Harry is in intimate touch with his inner teenager.
But Harry is not all well, and Rhys turns things down bracingly in his weaker moments – when he forgets something Alan’s told him or talks about his wife in the present tense. In these glimpses, we can see his confusion and frustration, his wrenching awareness of how both his brain and body are slipping.
He gives a fine monologue about the identity loss he’s experienced in aging. Once known by all as a radio host and a charmer, now, he says, hardly anyone knows who he is. Rhys makes visceral Harry’s desperate determination, having lost so much, to at least live the way he wants to live.
Eastman’s plotting is taut and builds well, with some lovely lyric moments amid the bickering, and the two actors navigate deftly between tension and rapprochement and back again. We come to care for them both as they grapple with what comes next for Harry.
“Harry Townsend’s Last Stand” is a funny, raucous, and deeply compassionate study of how to face aging with love.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.