“It’s a bit like going down the rabbit hole,” says actor Matthew Kerrigan of Shaking the Tree's latest show, We’re All Mad Here, which opens Friday, January 27. Much like last year’s Head, Hands, Feet, which drew from fairy tales and Greek myths, this solo show pulls its bones from a number of sources. Current events, pieces of Kerrigan’s life, and Carl Jung’s posthumously published The Red Book are all inspirations for a piece set squarely inside the madcap world of Alice in Wonderland.
It’s been a labor of love for Kerrigan, who devised the work with Shaking the Tree artistic director Samantha Van Der Merwe.
“She [Van Der Merwe] was like, ‘I want you to go home and just write down all the characters you have ever wanted to play or felt a connection to,” says Kerrigan. “There were 60 exactly, and the last five were from Alice in Wonderland.”
A solo show told as a series of vignettes, We’re All Mad Here brings characters like the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, and the White Rabbit together with three male characters, each partly based on Kerrigan himself. The versatile Portland actor grew up in Chicago's southern suburbs and started to come out to his friends and family at age 17. His Irish Catholic family supported him, though he remembers occasions of bullying because of his sexuality. This personal story provides the foundation of one of the play’s three protagonists.
“To play myself has been super difficult,” Kerrigan says. “That is what I am escaping when I play other characters. I get to step into someone else’s skin for a little while. But there is no hiding in some of this. It’s very much my voice, my memories.”
Another of the characters experiences the world through technology, an issue important to Kerrigan—he's dropped off most social media platforms.
“I’m not on Facebook or Instagram anymore, because I realized to I was starting to live my life as how I wanted to be perceived through these images and updates I would throw out there,” he says. “I realized that for me—for my mind, for my creative self—that was a major block.”
Development for any play can be a messy business. And, much like Alice’s famous answer to the caterpillar, where this show ended up is not where it began. Kerrigan started work in the fall of last year, hoping to create a more traditional show with three or four characters. After further development, Van Der Merwe—who also directs the show—latched onto Alice in Wonderland as a frame. The show wasn't originally slated for this winter—Shaking the Tree had intended to produce Macbeth—but after the election, plans changed. (A note on the Shaking the Tree website declared a “winter of love” at the company, with Van Der Merwe saying she needed “time for healing and self reflection.”) Kerrigan’s play was tapped to take Macbeth’s place in the season lineup. Working furiously through December and January, Kerrigan and Van Der Merwe recast the nascent piece, first as something overtly political—a response to the tumultuous climate—but eventually the work took a more introspective turn. For Kerrigan, the tight turnaround is nothing new.
“We had the same amount of rehearsal time that we would have had for Macbeth,” he says. "So it’s always at the end—always, without fail—like we are running out time. But magic can happen overnight, and ideas can come right before we open and through the run.”
It feels like everyone needs some of that magic right now, but for Kerrigan, the play is less about the present than it is about processing the past.
“Dreams and memories are really what this play is about,” he says. “Hopefully it will spark people to pay attention or maybe reflect on the places where we come from.”
We’re all Mad Here runs January 27–February 25 at Shaking the Tree.