‘We’re All Mad Here’

Shaking the Tree Theatre creates refuge in which to process the madness

At times, Shaking the Tree’s theatrical interpretation of Alice in Wonderland can feel intimately familiar; at other times, We’re All Mad Here is a force entirely of its own creation: wonderful moments of clarity interspersed with the occasional barrage of insanity. Each scene is left for the audience to interpret for themselves. Controlled chaos is a refreshing libation in a world ruled by madness.

Brought to life by actor Matthew Kerrigan and director Samantha Van Der Merwe, We’re All Mad Here manages to keep the audience grounded by using characters from the popular work of Lewis Carroll, while allowing the production to truly take flight by infusing the show with relatable truths which play throughout modern society.

These concepts range from finding meaning in life while facing the grueling reality of a typical 9–5 workday, to coming to terms with who we aresexually or otherwise. Contrasting these stark truths is a wonderful charge of artistic creativity that most everyone in the crowd will enjoy. One moment Kerrigan—who plays nearly every character—might be arguing with himself, playing two separate roles at once (think Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder). The next moment might see him dressed as a popular character using improv to interact directly with the audience.

The creative depth in each scene is augmented even further by the sheer number of acting methods employed throughout the performance. Clown, commedia, shadow puppetry, acrobatics, improv—somehow everything works. As if creating a straightforward play isn’t an accomplishment of its own, Shaking the Tree creates a mesmerizing array of puzzle pieces that never truly fit together. Yet inexplicably this unfitting element is what makes the production truly marvelous.

Sitting in Shaking the Tree’s retrofitted warehouse space (heated but bring a light jacket), surrounded by young teens and older baby boomers, watching the separate generations enjoy the the same performance…with run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbusters appearing bi-weekly, we can all use more intergenerational spice in our lives. This show offers that and much more.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, director behind We’re All Mad Here, took a moment to talk to the Vanguard about processing madness.

Vanguard: I understand that the idea for the show emerged from wanting to create a piece which deals with certain types of unrest, which seem so prevalent in today’s society—especially political unrest. What do you hope the audience will take away from the performance?

SVDM: I would just add that we wanted to respond immediately to what had just occurred in our country and examine how we had all reached this place in history, but after playing in the rehearsal room with a whole bunch of political material, we decided to examine a more personal place. Probably because social media has been flooded with politics since before the election, and the real world has become so bizarre. This play has become a certain kind of refuge in which to process the madness around us (and within).

VG: Watching the show, it was amazing to see all of these different scenes and sets come together to form a whole. How much time and work went into creating the show?

SVDM: It’s been a lot of hard work. Long days! When I realized what was needed for the show, I went straight to work. The snow days actually helped in a strange way because I had unlimited time to paint and cut out the shadow silhouettes. The best decision we made was to leave the “rabbit hole” for last. It was so much fun to put together.

VG: Biggest challenges relating to this show in particular?

SVDM: Trying not to connect the dots. Allowing it to make a sense of its own.

VG: I can see how that would be difficult. I’m certainly glad you took the effort to allow the story to blossom on its own accord. Do you have any future projects in the works that we should keep an eye out for? What’s next for Shaking the Tree?

SVDM: Hahaha. Well, thank you. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. We are presenting Miss Julie by August Strindberg, adapted by Craig Lucas, opening May 5, 2017.

You can still catch We’re All Mad Here in its final week at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant Street. Shows this week are at 7:30 Thursday–Sunday, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit shaking-the-tree.com/on-stage for more information.