Sunday, February 18, 2024

"Alice in Wonderland" at Children's Theatre Company

Children's Theatre Company is bringing back their original adaptation of Lewis Caroll's classic children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Somehow I missed the last time they did it over a decade ago, perhaps mistakenly thinking it was just for kids. So this was my first time going down the rabbit hole with director Peter C. Brosius, composer and one-man band Victor Zupanc, and this exceedingly talented ensemble of young and grownup actors. It's two hours of sheer wonder, magic, and delight for audiences of all ages, so inventive and playful and surprising at every turn. The fun and whimsical sets and costumes, the ensemble leading us through the story like something out of Pantomime and/or English Music Hall traditions, and Caroll's endlessly entertaining series of oddball characters speaking nonsense combine for a truly enjoyable show. Bring your kids, your grownups, or yourself to see Alice in Wonderland now through the end of March.

The show begins, well, before the show begins. As the audience is getting into their seats (after enjoying the opening night free popcorn and performances by an aerialist and a cellist), the ensemble is mingling and interacting with them. They eventually gather onstage, dressed in pantaloons and black and white stripes, their faces painted white with red cheeks. They introduce us to the story and declare that they're actors, and English! When the story really begins, we follow Alice from her school room down the rabbit hole, chasing the White Rabbit who is always late. All of her familiar adventures follow one after the other, like absurd little vignettes, until Alice eventually makes her way home after this weird and wonderful dream. And the audience is taken right along with her, sometimes almost literally as characters run up and down the aisles and even through rows of patrons (thank goodness for the wide rows with plentiful leg room).

Audrey Mojica as Alice (photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
The role of Alice is being shared by two young actors; I saw Audrey Mojica on opening night (alternating with Anja Arora). Audrey has grown up on CTC stages, and recently showed off her chops with a heart-wrenching performance in Theater Latte Da's Next to Normal. Here she's a wonderful heroine in Alice, strong and brave, open and curious, standing up for what's right. She's our touchstone of humanity in this nonsensical world. In addition to the always fabulous young actors at CTC, the cast is truly an embarrassment of riches from #TCTheater. When the ensemble includes the likes of Taj Ruler (the ever grinning and maniacally laughing Cheshire Cat), China Brickey (a truly terrifying Queen of Hearts), Neal Beckman (her King), and Janely Rodriguez (the gleefully cruel Duchess), you know you're in for a treat. Longtime CTC company member Dean Holt delights as Humpty Dumpty and the Mad Hatter, the latter paired with Nathan Keepers' March Hare (also the Caterpillar and the White Knight) for a dream comedy duo. 

the Mad Hatter (Dean Holt) and March Hare (Nathan Keepers)
(photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
The show employs nearly every theater trick imaginable in the inventive storytelling - trap doors, character doubles, puppets, a pit orchestra space used for falling into and jumping out of. The Mad Hatter scene is particularly jaw-dropping, as things and people appear and disappear as if by magic. Just when you think you've figured out "how did they do that," something else surprising happens that turns that idea on its ear. It's the one vignette that didn't seem to last long enough; I could have watched Dean and Nathan cavort at this mad tea party, with Audrey keeping up at every turn, for the length of the whole show. But alas, there is other nonsense to get to. Like Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Keegan Robinson and Antonisia Collins) in huge balloon-like costumes, knocking into each other and Alice to great comic effect, and Humpty Dumpty's terrifying fall. And of course, the live cricket game with the Queen of Hearts shouting "off with their heads" whenever she's displeased.

the ensemble (photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
Associate scenic designer and puppet designer Eric Van Wyk, along with associate costume designer Sarah Bahr, have continued the vision of original designer G.W. Mercier, who died a few years ago. The whole effect is of Victorian England, a bit skewed. Colorful costume pieces are added to the ensemble's black and white basics as they step into characters, and of course Alice is in the iconic blue checkered dress with white apron. The caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, and Jabberwock are created with colorful and sometimes massive pieces that all work together. The black and white checkerboard floor with successive red frames provides a great playground. The orchestra pit is mostly closed off, open at one end for Victor Zupanc to create a whimsical soundscape (I wouldn't call this a musical, but there is much music and a few songs), with a narrow strip for puppets and things to pop out of (and people to fall into). Long ramps lead up to either side of the stage, with the cast frequently spilling into the audience. Fans and umbrellas of varying sizes, puppets from giant to tiny, set pieces representing a garden or a brick wall, all add to the whimsy of this most whimsical story.

Children's Theatre Company's Alice in Wonderland is two hours of charming and brilliantly executed nonsense filled with delight and surprise. See it now through the end of March at Children's Theatre Company in South Minneapolis.