Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a modern retelling of Lewis Carroll's classic story. Part of the Dream Music Puppetry Program at the Here Arts Center, this adaptation by Lake Simons and John Dyer features original music and puppets. If, because this production is based on a children's book, you're picturing a cardboard stage and fuzzy hand puppets, stop right there. These puppets are not just animated dolls; they're also commonly found items (playing cards, banners, regular handheld props) that are infused with life. Even people are manipulated by puppeteers and moved around the stage. Every character was handled differently. Alice was both a human actor and several smaller puppets; much use was made of her growing and shrinking throughout the story. The White Rabbit was a rod puppet; the Cheshire Cat a loose-jointed stuffed animal with an illuminated smile. The "Pig and Pepper" scene was styled after a Punch and Judy puppet show. Alice's recitation of the poem "Father William" featured two psychedelic shadow puppets. Most visually striking was a two-person Caterpillar, composed of satin gloves and a modified baseball cap. Small, posed figurines were used for many of the minor characters.
Much credit goes to the five-piece band, led by Dyer. Dressed in a Mad Hatter-inspired top hat, Dyer sang all of the songs, played both acoustic and electric guitar, and provided musical sound effects. He also performed the voices for many of the characters, including the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, and the Mock Turtle.
Though Dyer was seated with the band away from the action, he was just as interesting to watch as the performance centered onstage, and his original music was a huge asset. Ranging from 60's bubblegum pop to dreamy acoustic pieces, each song propelled the story forward. Lyrics were taken directly from the Lewis Carroll text, though—like the objects onstage—they were manipulated to best serve the production. In fact, more lines from the original story were sung than spoken. Without the music, there would have been no way to advance the plot.
As the human Alice (and the voice of the Alice puppets), Simons was a perfect choice. Carroll never intended for Alice to be an ideal child, and Simons portrays her with just the right amount of mischief, innocence, and childish ignorance. Her body was used as just another puppet in some scenes: the descent down the rabbit hole was clever, low-tech, and exhilarating to watch. Occasionally, she was difficult to hear over the band, but this seemed to be a minor technical glitch limited to a single occasion.
The other performers were skilled at manipulating the various puppets used throughout the evening. They were at their very best, of course, when the audience forgot they were there. However, several of the puppets were such vibrant "characters" that the puppeteers could add to the effect, enhancing the objects with their own subtle facial expressions and postures.
The performers' wardrobe was practical and functional, allowing everyone the ease of movement needed for such a physical show. All in black (with the exception of Alice's red stockings and the blue piping on her blouse), the puppeteers were unobtrusive when they needed to be. Instead of the traditional black T-shirt/black jeans combo, these outfits were actual costumes. Designed by Carol Binion, the costumes were created to evoke Victorian dress: cravats, vests, and long skirts that suggested petticoats and bustles.
This is not a show for someone expecting a faithful rendition of the classic story. Nor is it the most accessible piece for someone unfamiliar with the text (the Disney cartoon doesn't count). While this adaptation follows Carroll's version closely enough, many of the scenes are done without any additional context. If you don't know the book very well, you might find yourself lost. This can be disorienting, but it also mirrors closely Alice's experiences. It takes a mature mind to assimilate the constant stream of images and sounds and to synthesize them into a recognizable representation of the Alice story. Thus, it might not be the right event for young children.
Still, Simons and John Dyer's Alice is definitely worth seeing, even if puppetry isn't your thing. What is most exciting about this production is watching a unique vision of a classic. This adaptation challenges the specific images of Alice that are ingrained in our popular culture and offers us a new trip to Wonderland.