***.5 Stars

BY Bec Johnston

One can only imagine what Allan Alcorn, the inventor of Pong, would think of the way that video games have come to transcend categorization – slowly morphing over the years from simple 8bit side-scrollers into beautiful, life-like images and near-cinematic experiences with complex, deep and moving storylines. Games are not what they used to be. The limitations of the medium are stripped away with every passing year and technological advancement. You only need to look at any AAA video game from the past few years to realize that huge strides are being made in our capacity to tell stories through gamification.

It is, then, a natural progression for the medium to eventually find its way into the realm of theatre. Alice², produced and performed by Ithaca Arts at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival, shows us one of the many ingenious ways this can be done.

I feel the need to write a disclaimer from the start: I dropped maths in year 10 (an experience I suspect I share with a reasonable contingent of my Fringe peers). I have always had immense respect for those with a knack for knumbers – numbers – but sadly, no amount of after-school tutoring could help me in that department. So, the very conceit of this maths-driven show is a daunting one for me. Nevertheless, Fringe is all about embracing the new and different, and for me, much like the heroes of our tale, that means standing up to an old foe.

Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was an accomplished mathematician. There are many who suspect his world-famous adventure is actually full of ‘mathematical satire’ – sure to go over the heads of many layman fans and readers. Ithaca Arts dares to probe more deeply, creating a 30-minute piece that is part video game, part live performance.

With the restrictions of the year forcing companies to think differently, the question of how to present digitally is posed. Alice² employs a viewing screen inspired by the Nintendo DS – sure to spark a twinge of nostalgia for those in the right age bracket. Nostalgia is powerful. It can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. In an instant, a viewer can fill in the blanks and populate the screen (and the work) with their own childhood memories and preconceptions. Ithaca Arts is to be commended for its creativity in this department, drawing on familiar imagery to set their stage.

The layout is well designed and easy to follow, with the built-for-purpose RPG nestled above and its corresponding ‘live’ action below it. It is finely crafted and a credit to the team who have seemingly used all of their passion and know-how to put this together.

It is then difficult to know how to begin to disassemble this piece. The clever graphics and bespoke gameplay are delightful, and do most of the work in telling the story. The accompanying live action, whether by design or not, naturally takes a backseat to this narrative vehicle. As such, a lot of the nuance of performance is lost, due to only a small part of the screen being dedicated to it. This is counteracted by some fine-tuned, pre-recorded dialogue that carries the brunt of the storytelling, but is not always enough to elevate the ‘human’ portion of the show – being the four cast members performing alongside the pre-recorded section.

There has clearly been thought given to the stagecraft, the lighting themes, the costume – but unfortunately, much of this hard work is ultimately obscured. Compromises such as these may be hard to avoid when experimenting with medium in this way, and the team involved must still be celebrated for pushing the envelope in a year that forces everyone to think outside of the box (or the square, in this case).

The story itself is simple enough, though if your mathematical background is anything like mine, you may find yourself spending much of the 30-minute runtime doing your best to keep up with the quick-fire dialogue.

The script is, thankfully, crafted in a way that allows even the most numerically-challenged to grasp the plot – a power struggle between Alice and the King for the top spot in what is an academic decathlon on steroids. What follows is a story of deception and the fleeting and fickle nature of power and those who wield it. The source material is ever-present – that whimsical-yet-threatening environment of Wonderland that is familiar to all of us.

Not a second is wasted in this high-energy, fast-paced work. The 30 minutes is over in a blink. Ithaca Arts have taken a much-loved story and imbued it with something totally new. Any lovers of Lewis Carroll and his mathematical Easter eggs would feel right at home in this topsy-turvy, video game world. For those who would suggest a Fringe piece that combines Alice, maths and video games is totally bonkers – well, all the best people are.