“‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’”-GK Chesterton
Last night, I was privileged to enter into fairyland in the heart of New Orleans. Indeed, every New Orleanian knows innately that fairyland’s borders lie right around eachcorner. The scent of a nearby crawfish boil or the strains of jazz carried by the winds of our city keep us ever in proximity to that child-like land of milk and honey. Yet, last night, in the middle of City Park, the sheerness of the veil was illuminated and, like a scrim on stage, revealed the heart of the child that lies in each one of us.
The play was “Alice in Wonderland” and it was staged (if ‘staged’ is even the right word: a whole garden is used as the acting space) by the formidable artists at the nolaproject theatre troupe (http://www.nolaproject.com/). Complete with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Queen’s Croquet, a disappearing-reappearing Cheshire Cat and the countless other characters, Wonderland was re-created in the NOMA Sculpture garden. It was a “choose your own adventure” style performance, where audience members pick their guide when they purchase their ticket. You could run with the Red Queen, prattle along with Alice or watch the Mad Hatter and Co. re-enact the whole story from the comfort of the Tea Party.
Now that you know the facts, you must be made aware of the more essential information: the nonsense. It is timed to coincide with the sunset, so the play begins in daylight, passes through twilight and ends in almost darkness. The statues in the NOMA garden, including a few token Rodins and Renoirs, are poked fun at and even made into characters. The young adult cast does more cartwheels, somersault, singing and fighting than occurs at your average kindergarten recess. Finally though, and most significantly, the lines of Lewis Carroll are delivered flawlessly in casual, if not flawless, British dialects. All these elements are sown together by the outdoor location, which provides punctuations of bird songs, wind, cloud and crunch as one steps across the grass to reach the different sets. So intoxicating and inviting is the experience that there moments of almost somatic surrender. I have never in my waking life questioned whether I was truly dreaming or just daydreaming until last night’s production. It was like the last chapter of the “Man Who Was Thursday” brought to life. (If you have not read GKC’s masterpiece, you need to drop what you’re reading and read it now).
Now that you have the nonsense, you should be made aware of the substance. This staging of Alice in Wonderland has, at it’s foundation, the same essential message (I won’t call it a “lesson” or “moral” for those words are just not silly enough!) that Chesterton makes at the end of “The Ethics of Elfland.” The message is, to quote the Mad Hatter, “that the world needs less facts and more mystery.” Children are often right, and adults are often dead wrong, when approaching the question “Why?” A child is comfortable waiting for the story to unfold, whereas the impatient adult wants the answer right away. Alice is happy to travel through Elfland for hours. Tedious and terrible adults can barely stand the place for a few minutes. Yet, humanity needs Wonderland, for a land without wonder is hardly worth fighting for, much less living in. God looked into the Abyss and said “Let there be light!,” there by conquering in one Word forever the darkness of a mere dark fact.
The veil of fact was held up to the light last night and what shone through was the Divine spark dwelling in actors and audience alike. We are all children playing in the Garden, even if most of the time we are acting like naughty children who have spoiled the Trees. The message at the end of the tale (for, again, it was neither a lesson nor a moral) is that learning to say sorry in the right way and learning to share your talents with God and others are the ends we must pursue. It is a message that every child of the Father must learn. Sometimes, nonsense is a better teacher of these truths than all the facts in the world. In a society increasingly organized by economy, bureaucracy and efficiency, I am tempted to change that “sometimes” to “most of the time.” Instead, I will leave you with this paraphrase of the play’s penultimate line; “I am sorry for being selfish. I am not sorry for being imperfect, but I will try, in both cases, to be better in the future.” Wonderland can and does bring us this message. Just remember that the border between here and Wonderland is paper thin…