Wednesday, September 15, 2010

THE: Alice in Wonderland Review

‘Twas Brillig-ant, it was, “Alice” that is, at the Cailloux Theatre
Review by Tony Gallucci
for the West Kerr Current

When I choose a word, it means just what I choose it to mean . . . – Ken DeZarn as Lewis Caroll . . .

It is almost always a slog to get through a production of Alice in Wonderland. No piece seems more difficult to bring to stage or film except, notoriously, Tristram Shandy, than Mr. Carroll’s fable of menterior adventure. Even Tim Burton, arguably most anyone’s top choice to create an adaptation, pretty much failed in last Spring’s underwhelming, overtaxed 3D saga.

The trick is always to step beyond the nonsense enough to create a story that enthralls along with the spectacle (although the spectacle is clearly necessary). All too many productions are more concerned with creating the magic instead of creating likeable characters and a raison d’etre.

So then, what happens when a small town company, that being Playhouse 2000, with a storycentric writer/rewriter and a gifted director with an eye for what makes a story work, aims to start afresh? You get a delightful two hours of show that deftly bridges the attention spans of both children and adults. Tack on some ancient magic-making, and some technical wizardry, and you get just the right dash of spectacle to make this story come alive.

Douglas Balentine, late founder of Playhouse 2000, with wife Susan, had conceived an Alice in the group’s first year. From there the script languished in a drawer in the bowels of the Cailloux Theatre, until Director Jeff Cunningham needed a child friendly/child-heavy piece to showcase the 15 or so Playhouse Academy students and the array of other children who have made their way into the local theatre community.

Alice is where he settled, and he enlisted the talent of David McGuff to rewrite – to adapt the adaptation – the piece suitable for a cast of nearly sixty ranging in age from four to over 70.

That collaboration birthed the shining star that is the Cailloux Theatre’s production.

How do you make sense of something that makes no sense to begin with . . . – Jeff Cunningham, Director

Well, presumably you’d begin by creating outsized performances – actors who can hold the stage on their own: ones whom you begin to love for better or worse, for whom you can’t wait for their reappearance – like Hannah McDonald as the Duchess, McGuff as the Mad Hatter, Jessica Roberts as the Queen of Hearts, Kirk Logan as the King of Hearts, Sloan Frierson and Chloe Hedrick as the Cheshire Cat, Sheradon Olden as the March Hare, Kelly Geller as the White Rabbit, and DeZarn as the Carroll bookends and the Caterpillar – all brilliantly realized.

Then sprinkle lightly with assorted characters who shine in their tiny moments – like those performed by Sarah Neal (now there’s a kid with a bright stage future) as the Dormouse, and Ian Sharp as the Two of Clubs, and a phalanx of adorable youngsters, and you have the roots of an entertaining adventure regardless of its nonsense.

McGuff’s Mad Hatter is a whirlwind of crazy, vocally extravagant and physically adroit exactly as one would wish for in a character with such delectable dialogue. Roberts’ frothing Queen is nothing less than spectacular. Roberts has always been singularly expressive and a marvel at her characterizations, but here she has clearly reached a new high. I wanted more lines for her. Logan’s King is her perfect foil, his sassy wordplay in the courtroom elevates the scene beautifully, and he is a comic physical actor of prodigious talent, further illustrated by his Tweedledee.

Ken DeZarn as Lewis Carroll and as the Caterpillar is elegantly cast and a beautiful casting combination by the way – what better way to showcase Carroll’s wisdom hidden in wordplay. Kelly Geller as the Rabbit, who is delightfully hyperactive, achieves all the right notes vocally and physically – there is not a moment when she is not totally and delightfully in character.

Many of the actors are onstage here for the first time and in some ways it was all too much to take – there was a wealth of talent on display, and it’s a shame there is not the space here to cover them all.

Finally, Alice, played by Hope Hargrove, is on stage virtually every moment and must maintain the sense of her travels, and grow as the play proceeds. Hargrove is the visual ideal for the part, all beauty, innocence and light, as her ordeal allows her to follow an arc resulting in some form of nonsensical wisdom.

The direction of the show, in allowing no time for the story to unravel, is nicely accomplished at keeping 60 or so actors in constant motion, all the better for keeping rapt the mostly under-ten audience. Cunnigham’s ability to create pretty pictures on stage is at its peak here – his palette is delicious, the stage, though dark and blocky, is perfect for creating mutliple levels and serving as a screen on which his tableaus are set.

Nick Boland and technical crew set the stage awash in colors befitting the psychedelic undertones of the story, superbly shifting focus from one French scene to the next, both physically and emotionally. The multi-colored sky effects, the color wheels on the painstakingly marbled walls, the isolation of characters to allow the shadows to do their work, all deserve kudos.

I don’t know the source, Director or Tech Director, but there is a subtle but wonderful shift in tone as the play progresses, beginning with Alice’s being the lone spot of color against the dark set. Slowly, through Act One, the color expands, first with a handful of characters, brightly costumed, passing across the stage. And then come moments of sheer inspiration – the storm that envelops the slaying of the Jabberwock has a surreality appropriate to the magic of its Asian-style staging.

This is followed by the appearance of the Cheshire Cat (superbly and sultrily performed and timed by Frierson and Hedrick) which creates the illusion of a dazzling jack-in-the-box, a purple blaze of color here, now gone, now there, so inventive are their costumes and characterizations, and yet until the scene at the Hatter’s Tea the color remains remote, isolated.

Then at the table, center stage, suddenly there is a burst of color and imagination and the energy soars, followed by the grander color expanse of the garden, culminating in the swamping of the stage in a storm of activity and a rainbow of color at the Queen’s Croquet Match. At that point, the audience, about half children, was deeply engaged, and the want to see more was palpable.

The second act takes a different tack, strictly limited to isolated scenes, often white or silver against the black backdrop, that then explodes in the suddenness of the Courtroom scene, all awash in brilliant reds and greens, accusations and recriminations, ending in the deflating observation that it’s all just a deck of cards.

It would be disingenuous of me to avoid mentioning the Shadows, though I somewhat regret doing so as it might foreshadow some of the magic. Perhaps all I should say is that it was a stroke of genius to use them – they do a fantastic job of making many scenes work and are to be congratulated on having done so. Allen Garcia Southern, Andrea de Leon, Taylor Sparkman, Lauren Fox, Chrislyn Sparkman, and Allanis McGee – all props to you for a wonderful piece of work.

The costuming is among the finest ensemble creations I’ve seen on an area stage. Olden’s and Roberts’ designs and their and their crews’ creations are perfection, nothing less. Especially memorable are the King, Queen and Jack (Brent Mills) of Hearts and all their cards, the White Knight, played by Trevor Stewart (who has the finest, and funniest, physical performance of the show), and the White Queen, played by Joan Bryson of the Jim Carrey expressions, Laurent Sorrell’s Dodo, Natalie Herrera’s Crab, Erin Bondy’s Gryphon, and the Cheshire Cats. The props are as delicious – the Jabberwock, the Flamingo mallets, the Cheshire smile, the White Knight’s Horse – with much recognition going to the props fabricators, led by veteran prop-agators Neill Day, Cunningham and Preston Weatherred.

I much appreciated McGuff’s elegant and tasteful background music, but would’ve wished for much more of it, even subtly below dialogue. Nevertheless, the sudden dropouts of sound as punctuation were outstandingly executed.

My quibbles are few: as might be expected among a crew of young actors and new folks, there were moments of dropped dialogue and uncomfortable silences which caused a couple of scenes to drag, other moments to die, and some lines being spoken so fast as to be unintelligible, but all of those should smooth out over time as the youngsters and newcomers become more self-aware and comfortable. There were likewise a few technical issues that stand out, notably action taking place in shadows or dark, and thus lost to the viewer – perhaps glitches of the moment. To help perpetuate the magic I would wish for black gloves on the Shadows.

In total however, many of the potential issues in presenting a show like this were mastered by Cunningham, Boland and folks with their brilliant adaptation of ancient techniques, thereby avoiding the usual Alice pitfalls of too ambitious and thus glitchy fly-rigs and cumbersome and flow-killing scene changes. The scenes here move seamlessly and beautifully.

It is a show highly recommended.

Alice continues through September 25th with Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m. and the last Sunday matinee, September 19th, at 2:00 p.m. I recommend, especially if you have children in tow, that you sit as close to the stage as you are comfortable with, in order to be fully enveloped by and engaged in the action.

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