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Giving 'Alice in Wonderland' an NC-17 Makeover

Date: Apr 11, 2019

Company XIV's resident designer on his sexy neo-baroque aesthetics for Queen of Hearts


Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is constantly being reimagined for the stage, from big-budget musicals to plucky kids' shows, audacious ballets to a an immersive trip down the rabbit hole. But Company XIV's Queen of Hearts may be the most risqué interpretation yet: a neo-baroque, gender-bending, circus-burlesque Wonderland in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Since 2006, Company XIV -- named for and influenced by the ostentatious style of Louis XIV -- has been wowing audiences with seductive reinventions of fairy tales, notably Snow White, Cinderella and the holiday sextravaganza Nutcracker Rouge. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Company XIV's founder Austin McCormick, Queen of Hearts follows a similar recipe, with an added splash of locally made absinthe, descending chocolate truffles, and a kaleidoscope of costumes, props and set pieces by Zane Pihlström, the troupe's resident designer for the past eight years.

For his latest creation, McCormick dove into the literary source material, but Pihlström kept a purposeful distance, taking his cues from his collaborator. "We didn't have a script," Pihlström says. "Austin just provided a list of names and scenes: 'White Rabbit. Drowning in Tears. Tea Party. Beheading.' And so on. He considers the cast's specialties" -- which range from opera singing to aerial acrobatics to striptease -- "and works backward."


The multisensory experience begins the moment you walk through the graffitied industrial door of Théâtre XIV, the troupe's custom-made performance space, lounge and bar housed in a retrofitted tow truck warehouse. Incense wafts through the air. Gaze upward through a circular staircase and you'll spy the corps de burlesque decked out in wigs and sparkling undergarments. Jeanette Yew's lighting saturates the space in jewel tones, contributing to the lascivious aura.

This Wonderland must accommodate aerial acts, a Cyr wheel, pole dancing and a variety of other feats, presenting Pihlström with the challenge of creating an environment that is simultaneously fantastical and functional. There is no effort to hide the evening's mechanics. Out of the shadows, a wardrobe or vintage bed may appear. Blink an eye and maypole ribbons suddenly ripple around a chanteuse. The designer has found creative ways to conjure the narrative's iconic scenes. Wooden waves undulate back and forth as Alice drowns in tears. For the tea party, he commissioned a local artist to sculpt a larger-than-life, two-person pot in black and gold.

Costuming the cast of 13 diverse performers was also hard, as circus routines and baroque attire aren't natural bedfellows. But Pihlström insists, "There's no challenge that can't be solved through burlesque. In Austin's mind, the design is very important. He's often willing to change choreography or adjust an act to elevate the design." Aerialists are commonly costumed in Lycra or spandex. "It's tricky, but they can still bend in a corset," Pihlström says. "As long as they're covered in certain places, they don't need an entire wet suit." Over-the-top makeup and hair, notably ornate spray-glued wigs by Bryan Gonzalez, complete the period looks.


Part of Company XIV's charm is its creative mash-ups of high and lowbrow aesthetics. "Austin is a great shopper and has an amazing eye," Pihlström says. Lingerie from Agent Provocateur might be paired with a deconstructed 1950s prom dress or former Metropolitan Opera costume to create something entirely new. For Queen of Hearts, Pihlström transformed a shower curtain into a 17th-century coat with a faux red rabbit fur trim. Other outfits nod to Jean-Honoré Fragonard's Rococo masterpiece "The Swing" and vintage playing cards. Sometimes, Pihlström dispenses with history all together: The caterpillar arrives in a fully encased bondage suit and then morphs into a delicate butterfly.

Like all of Company XIV's oeuvre, Queen of Hearts is a feast for the senses with an eclectic soundtrack (Tom Waits, Tchaikovsky, Rihanna, Nina Simone), a curated cocktail menu with cheeky monikers ("We're All Mad Here") and dazzling performances. But Pihlström's voluptuous visuals are what really pull you through the looking glass.


Matthew Wexler is an NYC-based culture and lifestyle writer. Read more of his work at

Top image: A scene from Queen of Hearts. Photos by Phillip Van Nostrand.

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