Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In 1982, Children's Theatre Company presented the premiere of Sharon Holland's stage adaptation, Alice in Wonderland, and has revived it several times in the forty-plus years since. I had not seen any of those earlier productions, so I was especially looking forward to the current revival playing on the theatre company's UnitedHealth Group Stage. In manifesting the joy of imagination celebrated by Carroll, Children's Theatre Company does not disappoint. The show is a cornucopia of fantastic costumes, lighting, sets, and out-sized performances that bring Wonderland brilliantly to life, marvelously performed by as high-octane and highly committed a cast as ever fell down a rabbit hole.
If anything, the production may have an overabundance of zeal and horsepower. The rapid-paced staging, directed by CTC Artistic Director Peter Brosius, never fails to hold attention, and the frequent use of the ensemble to shout out squeals of whatever emotion the scene is meant to convey–delight, anger, fear or what have you–should keep even the youngest audience members (the show is billed as appropriate for all ages) tuned in. However, so much commotion and noise sometime overwhelms the story, even as it conveys the disorientation Alice experiences.
To be sure, the audience, for the most part, was loving it all, and who can blame them? Such showmanship! Such inspired lunacy! But I kept wondering, how are we to give any thought to the meaning of one of Alice's encounters when the next one comes galloping on its heels? It turns out my companions attending the performance with me, two boys ages thirteen and twelve, expressed the same feeling as we left the theater, both saying it was good–and easily recounting individual parts that were particularly funny or brilliantly staged–but that it felt, as one of them put it, "over the top"–too much to take it all in and make any sense of it.
On the other hand, this two-hour (with an intermission) presentation of all that befalls Alice when she becomes distracted listening to her older sister reading a dreary book and follows a white rabbit carrying a pocket watch and exclaiming "I'm late! I'm late!" before diving down a rabbit hole, is a mesmerizing trip. . After a long descent–artfully staged as pantomime in shadow–Alice faces one challenge after another, such as doors she cannot unlock or that she is too large to pass through until she discovers ways to alter her size, becoming smaller or bigger as every circumstance continues to change.
She meets a philosophizing caterpillar, a cheshire cat who reveals only his smile, the Mad Hatter and March Hare having a nonsensical tea party, the heavily inflated twins Tweedledum and Tweedle Dee, a melancholy White Knight, a Duchess with a baby that turns into a pig (though, a very cute pig), and Humpty Dumpty determined that he will not suffer any fall, let alone a great fall, all the while in pursuit of the white rabbit. Alice finally catches up with it at the Queen of Hearts' croquet tournament, with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. The Queen plays a cutthroat game–literally, as she is wont to order "off with their heads" when anyone displeases her, as it seems practically everyone does. When the Knave of Hearts steals the Queen's tarts, Alice is accused and put on a travesty of a trial.
Each of these episodes is delightfully staged and on their own are marvelous entertainments. I was particularly enamored by Humpty Dumpty's fall-defying performance, played to the hilt of merriment by the rubber-limbed Dean Holt; by Tweedledee (Keegan Robinson) and Tweedledum (Antonisia Collins) bouncing about the stage, with Alice getting squeezed between them; and two characters brought to life by Nathan Keepers: first, the Caterpillar, with Keepers as its head, and other cast members following behind as its segmented body, comically bunching up and spreading out as the creature inches along; and then, the White Knight, who is the only character who treats Alice with any real regard, and who delivers an empathic reading of "'Twas Brillig," a nonsense poem that manages to sound wrought with meaning. Keepers is also the March Hare, an apt match to Holt's manically charged Mad Hatter.
Two actors rotate as Alice. At the press opening I attended, Audrey Mojica played the part. Mojica, an eleventh-grade student, is already quite a theatre veteran, having appeared in numerous Children's Theatre Company productions over the years as well as productions at Minnesota Opera, the Ordway, and Theatre Latté Da. She shows herself to be maturing into a terrific actor. Her Alice very much comes across as a child, but Mojica never presents her as cloying or wrought with childish fears or tempers. Rather, her Alice is very capable of engaging fully with the peculiar characters and circumstances of Wonderland while maintaining her own distinct presence. She also handles the physical demands of the role, with pratfalls, rolling over backwards, and other stunts routinely required.
Aside from Mojica and the other actors I mentioned above, standouts in the talented cast include China Brickey as the imperious Queen of Hearts, Janely Rodriguez as the rather muddle-headed Duchess, and Taj Ruler as the smirking head and front legs of the Cheshire Cat (with ensemble members as its two rear legs and twisty tail, the parts spread apart to accentuate Cheshire's disembodied state–one of the many ingenious presentational devices in this production.
The late G.W. "Skip" Mercier, who designed the sets and costumes for this production, passed away in 2021. Mercier's designs have been seen in many past productions at CTC and around the country–he was a resident designer for the National Playwright's Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut. His work earned a Tony nomination and several Drama Desk nominations. The costumes for this production–realized through the efforts of associate costume designer Sarah Bahr–are exceptional, brimming with imagination and intelligence. It is the kind of work that, were the Ivey Awards still being given to Twin Cities professional theatremakers, would hands down receive a commendation.
Mercier's set design is brightly conceived to establish the serenity of the initial setting–Alice growing restless as her sister reads to her at the river bank–and then transform into a flexible shell in which, with enormous support from associate set designer and puppet designer Eric Van Wyk and from lighting designer Paul Whitaker, provides the variety of quirky settings Alice finds in Wonderland, and allows for fluid transition from one to the next.
Sean Healey and Victor Zupanc designed the sound, and while it is crisp throughout, the volume and frequent thrum often feel like a distraction, rather than an enhancement to the story. Zupanc, who frequently serves as music director for CTC, also composed the production's music. I am sorry to say, the music never produces anything that could be called tuneful and that might have unified the production by means of a recurring theme, but instead takes the form of chants, some gleeful, some bellicose, that add to the show's intensity but not its impact.
Do I recommend this Alice in Wonderland? The children in the audience, mostly younger than my two young friends, seemed fully engrossed, shouting out on cue at the various escapades and dazzling visual staging. Even my two friends, while initially saying they felt the show pushed too hard to be entertaining, had no problem coming up with a list of all the scenes that tickled them. As an adult theatregoer, it is worth seeing for its staging and design elements, and a stage full of wonderful comic performances by seasoned pros and, in the case of Audrey Mojica, a star in the making, and thus is easy to highly recommend. My only disclaimer is that for all its brilliant execution, upon leaving it I felt like a fantastic mirage had entertained me for two hours, but once gone, left nothing to hang on to in the way of meaning.
Alice in Wonderland runs through March 31, 2024, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatre.org. This show is suitable for all ages.
Story by Lewis Carroll, adapted for the stage by Sharon Holland; Director: Peter Brosius; Music: Victor Zupanc; Movement Director: Darius Strong; Scenic and Costume design: G.W. Mercier; ; Lighting design: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: Sean Healey, Victor Zupanc; Associate Scenic Design and Puppet Design: Eric Van Wyk; Associate Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Assistant Director: Hannah Steblay; Assistant Movement Directors: Adeline Beck, Olivia Geffre; Assistant Lighting Designer: Andrew Vance; Assistant Dialect Coach: China Brickey; Production Stage Manager: Jenny R. Friend; Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Z Makila; Stage Management Fellow: Janae Lorick.
Cast: Mollie Allen (ensemble), Anja Arora *(Alice), Neal Beckman (King of Hearts/ensemble), Liam Beck-O'Sullivan (ensemble), China Brickey (Queen of Hearts/ensemble), Amir Byrd (ensemble), River Clementson (White Rabbit), Antonisia Collins (Tweedledum/ensemble), Evan Decker (ensemble), Ronan Guevara (ensemble), Dean Holt (Mad Hatter/Humpty Dumpty/ensemble), Nathan Keepers (Caterpillar/ White Knight/March Hare/ensemble), Olivia Lampert (ensemble), Audrey Mojica *(Alice), Ayla Porter (ensemble), Keegan Robinson (Tweedledee/ensemble), Janely Rodriguez (Edith/Duchess/ ensemble), Taj Ruler (Cheshire Cat/ensemble), Harriet Spencer (ensemble), Nicola Wahl (ensemble).
* alternating performances