According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale, babies turn to pigs, rabbits carry pocket watches, and teatime reigns eternal – but how do you put it all onstage? And what will you tell the children? The Ateh Theater Group puts down the book, picks up the Wonderland, and gives our kids all the nonsense they can handle, and then some.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

“Everything has a moral if only you can find it.”

So says the pig-rearing Duchess in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, adapted and directed by Bridgette Dunlap at the Connelly Theater.

However, if you’re looking for a strong dose of fable morality for your own little one, well, you’d best peer down a different rabbit hole. The Ateh Theater’s current production is full of semantic loopholes, realized paradoxes and, in the true Carroll fashion, gobbelty-goops of jibjab-ery – or, to put it plainly, a lot of word games.

The big dilemma facing Ateh’s production is this: how can a play all about the vagaries of language appeal to the under-ten crowd? How can you translate the jokes, when translation itself is the joke? Even Disney, for goodness’ sake, gave us a hookah-smoking caterpillar when presented with the Wonderland Dilemma. So what’s a smart, ambitious, youth-oriented theater company like Ateh to do?

Make it visual.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland owes a large part of its appeal to its crew – Kathryn Ekblad as the fight choreographer, Amy Van Mullekon as the costume designer, Emily French as the set designer, and, of course, Bridgette Dunlap as director – through their astonishing visual illusions and conceits, the plays is transformed from “Words, words, words” into a veritable Wonderland for the five-year-old viewer.

Before watching this production, I never realized what a poor candidate Carroll’s Alice was for the theater – not only is the story almost all words and no action, the little bits of action we do get are practically impossible to stage. Take, for example, Alice’s most common stage direction – "grows" and "shrinks." It takes a fearless director to choose a play that not only features a character literally three-inches tall, but then stretches that same character a mile high, sticks her inside a house and proceeds to light her on fire. Really, nothing quite says children’s theater like an oversized living pyre.

Dunlap, however, is deft in her direction, and she uses elaborate dance choreography and low-cost, high-imagination staging to imply, if not actualize, all the weirdness of this Wonderland. Alice shrinks by shifting from a squat to tip-toes while the chorus of characters around her slowly crouches to the ground – contrary to my description, the overall effect is not that of an awkward gym class, but of Alice actually growing. From the audience, you sense her expanding as the world around her shrinks, and the simplest staging accomplishes the most impossible of tricks.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also uses props to great effect, most notably by having Alice stand on a chair and release a scroll of paper, covered with a sketch of her elongated body – the drawing fades in with the actress’ face and, if we squint our eyes and suspend our disbelief for a second, we can actually start to see Alice transformed into a serpent.

As cool as these staging devices are (and believe me, they really are cool), Ateh’s production falls short. The acting, even for children’s theater, is rough – Alice, played by Kathryn Ekblad, enters in a hurried frenzy of shouting that never lets up. Ekblad doesn’t allow her Alice any emotional transformation, even as she physically grows and shrinks; as a result, the play ends up as a one-note adventure. However, there is a bright side: Sara Montgomery, as the Duchess, and Elizabeth Neptune, as the Cook and Card, both give hilarious performances full of humor and unexpected quirks, enjoyed as much by the adults as by the kids in the audience.

Unfortunately, despite the show’s visual detail and high energy level, the children in the audience were not nearly as captivated as one would hope. While the show kept its adult audience reasonably well-entertained, Ateh would have to greatly increase the sight gags and go mum on all the fancy talk to win over younger viewers.

More than half of the kids I saw looked like they were enjoying show, but that still left more than a couple restless rugrats rustling around. The little girl seated next to me, in particular, was not a fan and, by the time we started the croquet match, she had flung herself to the floor in a temper tantrum screaming, “I want to go out of the show now!”

As the March Hare instructs Alice: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” Those words might very well be the real moral behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And, from what I saw happening in the seat to my left, this little one certainly had learned her Lewis Carroll lesson.

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Conelly Theater (220 E. 4th Street)
Tickets (, 212.352.3101): $15
Performances: February 23rd through March 17th, Saturdays and Sundays at 12pm

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