Encore Michigan

Roustabout’s ‘Hatter’ is mad indeed

Review April 08, 2019 Toby Tieger

YPSILANTI, Mich.–The story of Alice in Wonderland has been retold many times in many forms. The tale of fancy contains a strong whiff of magic, an entire world devoted to wonder and absurdity, so it’s no surprise that so many artists have included an imprint of Wonderland in their work.

So what makes Mad as a Hatter unique? To start with, for the most part Michael Alan Herman’s new play isn’t set in the realm of Wonderland at all. Instead, it begins in the very restricted world of 1870s Oxford in the shop of Theophilus Carter, the man who may have been the inspiration for the Mad Hatter character.

Historically, it’s unclear exactly how much Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was just his pen name) and Carter actually knew one another. However, for the purposes of Mad as a Hatter, Carter (Russ Schwartz) and Dodgson (Jeffrey Shawn Miller) were previously peers and friends, until Dodgson published his famous book that caricatured Carter as a zany madman.

Now their relationship has disintegrated due to the unintended betrayal. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” quickly becomes the play’s central refrain, asked by Carter repeatedly as a shorthand to allude to the hordes of curious customers who have entered his shop just to gawk at him.

Meanwhile, Alice (Allyson Miko) has recently reached the age of adulthood and is trying to determine what it means for her to grow up without losing her essence to dreary and proper maturity. When she returns home to visit her two childhood friends, she finds out about the rift between them and quickly decides that she must find a way to fix it.

Set in the intimate Ypsilanti Experimental Space (YES), [8 N Washington St,] the ensemble piece offers all three actors many moments to demonstrate their considerable skills. Miko is charming as she lurches back and forth from childish glee to cultured grace, occasionally dipping into spot-on impressions. In particular, there are some clever discussions throughout the play about her fears of becoming a “Queen,” referencing the wicked Queen of Hearts.

Besides playing Dodgson, Miller also portrays The Mad Hatter, a figment of Carter’s imagination following him around who is as full of whimsy and frivolous nonsense as we all remember from the original story. These are the moments when both Miller and Schwartz are truly able to shine, volleying existential truths among fluffy trivialities and playing ludicrous games much like the original Alice did with countless Wonderland creatures. It’s clear just how much fun Miller is having as he trips and dances around the stage, and that sense of fun is infectious.

Schwartz gets to play the complex role of an upstanding man being driven mad by loneliness, anger, and bitterness. He does this by inflecting all his interactions with a slowly boiling rage.

The space of YES can only contain around 30 chairs, but the actors use this coziness to their advantage by allowing shadows of momentary thoughts to dart across their faces. Audiences could only hope to see this level of nuance in such close quarters.

Joey Albright’s direction is consistently smart, often adding action to scenes where it hasn’t been written into the script.

The set as designed by Jennifer Maiseloff is very well constructed for the small space, and includes innovative features to gradually transform the background over the course of the play into something more colorful as the characters all give way to their imagination and madness. Similarly, although there aren’t many lights to work with, Alex Gay has done a nice job of using the sparse accommodations to the play’s advantage.

Emily Betz, the costume designer, has done some truly wonderful work. In the costumes of the three protagonists she has evoked the 1800s with a minimalist eye, and in the wacky Mad Hatter she has created a timeless costume with bizarre flair.

Mad as a Hatter is the first of three plays that will be produced by the Roustabout Theatre Troupe this year. This will mark their first full season of plays as a company. If this show is any indication, audiences can look forward to an offbeat and imaginative year.  

Week of 11/27/2023

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