Review: "Queen of Hearts" Conjures a Decadent Wonderland

Queen of Hearts

Conceived, choreographed, and directed by Austin McCormick

Presented by Company XIV at Théâtre XIV (21+ only)

383 Troutman Street, Brooklyn, NYC

July 25-November 2, 2019

Nolan McKew, Làszlò Major, Ian Spring, Sam Urdang, Nicholas Katen, Michael Cunio, LEXXE, Lilin Lace, Jacoby Pruitt, Ryan Redmond, Ross Katen, Jourdan Epstein, Allison Schuster, Marcy Richardson. Photo credit: Mark Shelby Perry.

Queen of Hearts begins its first chapter, "Lady Alice," with Alice (LEXXE) installed on a bed set before a trio of mirrored wardrobes, pausing to regard herself in a handheld looking glass or to accept or wave away dainties and other offerings from servants. Soon enough, though, she is off down the rabbit hole, losing her baroque wig and eighteenth-century dress in the process. From there, Austin McCormick and Company XIV reimagine the major characters and events of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a stunning, heady fusion of cabaret, carnival, dance theater, and burlesque.

Michael Cunio. Photo credit: Mark Shelley Perry
McCormick, a Drama Desk Award nominee whose credits include choreography for Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and Theatre for a New Audience, is the founder and Artistic Director of Company XIV, and his Queen of Hearts, brought to scintillating life by an impressively talented, charismatic cast, creates an arresting postmodern Wonderland that draws inspiration from sources such as ballet and old-school theatrical illusion as much as it does from BDSM culture and contemporary pop. Having abandoned her domestic insularity for stranger regions, this Alice sports blue hair and tattoos, and, at one point, straps on a Gibson Les Paul. The White Rabbit (Michael Cunio), meanwhile, is attended by other bunnies who flaunt circular, sparkling codpieces rather than cottony tails. The act and scene divisions are indicated via silent-movie-style placards such as "Curiouser and Curiouser" or "Eat Me" carried by the performers, and a given chapter might feature The White Rabbit belting out a Natalia Kills song, the Dormouse (Nolan McKew) and the Mad Hatter (Marcy Richardson) performing gracefully athletic aerial work (the latter while also, very impressively, singing), or Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Ross Katen and Nicholas Katen) doubly doubling the characters' doubling with a "half-and-half" vaudeville act that adds a mirror. The music, some original recordings and some performed live, varies similarly, ranging from Jacques Offenbach to Tom Jones to Beyoncé.

Ian Spring and LEXXE. Photo credit: Mark Shelley Perry.
Burlesque is inherently about liberation and freeing the self, and Alice is seen similarly in many modern interpretations and adaptations, as a figure who moves outside of the norms and restrictions of her society. Unsurprisingly, then, there is a pronounced liberatory flavor to Queen of Hearts. Alice frees a candy woman (Ashley Dragon) from her wrapper (after which she takes a spectacular turn in her Cyr wheel before eventually leading Alice behind the curtain, where Alice's subsequent growth leaves open the possibility that Alice eats her). The Caterpillar (an excellent, very flexible Lilin Lace) emerges from her initial, bondage-style costume to vape with her feet and become a butterfly; and a sultry merman (Làszlò Major) ultimately sheds his tail as part of his dance. This motif extends to the magnificently gender-bending makeup and costuming and the air of decadent flirtatiousness that necessitates the reproof of many a wandering hand and sees quite a novel, pink-coiffed twist on the eighteenth-century dandy.

Marcy Richardson. Photo credit: Mark Shelby Perry.
This sort of reinvention is also seen in the effective use of theatrical illusion throughout, whether in Alice chasing the White Rabbit in and out of the various wardrobes, Tweedledee and Tweedledum doing a little stage magic, the shadow of a key becoming real in Alice's hand, or a multiplicity of disembodied arms strikingly framing the first appearance of the Queen of Hearts (Storm Marrero) herself as a similarly disembodied head. When the Queen fully emerges onto the stage, it is in a suitable magnificent costume and for a standout rendition of "Bow Down" in which she is the center of a bevy of horse-headed knights on leashes. All four vocalists—Marrero, LEXXE, Cunio, and Richardson—are excellent and each brings a different style to the show: Cunio's edge on "White Rabbit" is as much a highlight as Richardson's classically-influenced, French-language arrangement of "Poker Face." Another highlight involves pointe shoes, some oversized bottles, and LEXXE's Alice, who ably projects wonder, contemplation, and flirtatiousness on her journey, whether she is in the midst or on the margins of goings-on.

Théâtre XIV has a great atmosphere, and Queen of Hearts blends audience and performance space not only though staging and small interactive moments but also through touches such as a menu of Alice-themed drinks, at least one served in a teacup. The three-act show, which runs around two and a half hours, also leads into and out of its two intermissions with short performances such as juggling or lip syncing. With tremendous performances; marvelous, sometimes beautiful choreography; playful, infectious energy; and plenty of glitter, spangles, and confetti, Queen of Hearts delivers a unique synthesis of art forms. The only disappointment is that this mad party, like Alice's adventures, has to end.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

Watch the Queen of Hearts Trailer:


Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Immersive "American Blues: 5 Short Plays by Tennessee Williams" Takes Audiences on a Marvelously Crafted Journey

Review: "How To Eat an Orange" Cuts into the Life of an Argentine Artist and Activist

Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival