At the Theater: ‘High,’ ‘War Horse’ and ‘Wonderland’ Strike Out, but ‘Being Harold Pinter’ Strikes Gold

Wonderland, the new, off-putting reinterpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that opened Sunday night at the Marquis, does at least one impressive thing: I never thought that with a former Miss America shrieking at me while wearing a goofy hat, my primary concern would be staying awake.

But that’s the accomplishment of Wonderland, written by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, with music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Mr. Murphy, and frenzied direction by Mr. Boyd. Its story is so overwrought and incomprehensible, its good cheer so forcibly relentless, its songs so overbelted and overmiked, that it blends into something entirely soporific.

The creators’ concept is easy enough to see: Let’s take the prequel-to-a-classic success of Wicked, build on it with an up-to-date story–Alice here is a frazzled single mom–and throw in lots of big production numbers and over-the-top costumes (which are actually pretty great, especially for the Queen of Hearts), and we’ll mint money.

But there’s so much going on here–at least two ethnic stereotypes too many; a single number that quotes Evita, South Pacific, The Music Man, and Gypsy; the Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998) kidnapping Alice’s daughter by strapping her to a golden Zamboni (I have no idea)–that nothing registers, nothing connects and nothing makes any sense. The whole thing’s a rabbit hole you’d be best off to avoid.

It is a ridiculous quibble, I know, to wish that the Belarus Free Theatre performed in English. The troupe is Belarusian; its members are citizens of what’s regularly and rightfully termed the last dictatorship in Europe. They snuck out of their country to perform at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival in January, and they have been unable to return since. They perform in Belarusian and Russian.

Their story is harrowing, their commitment to theater is awe-inspiring and their work–they are now performing three of their plays in repertory at La MaMa (in a coproduction with the Public)–is remarkable. But their performance is so dense and intricately constructed that I kept wishing I didn’t have to glance away from the stage to read the English translations projected overhead.

I saw only Being Harold Pinter (adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban), which virtuosically mixes the playwright’s words–from his plays and from his Nobel acceptance speech–with letters from Belarusian political prisoners. It is intense and revelatory, the sort of bracing and ballsy stuff that, yes, could get you persecuted if you lived under an autocrat.

It’s staged simply, creatively and wonderfully. To take one striking moment: When a character speaks of falling and cutting his head, another approaches, places his hand over the other’s eyes, and sprays a burst of bright-red spray paint on his face. It makes the point, with an elegant sort of garishness, and it leaves the victim surrounded by a lingering, floating haze of small red droplets. It’s a remarkable effect, and it’s one of the many times you simply can’t look away.