Underbelly's Alice in Wonderland
This new adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic sends its audience down the rabbit hole – and all over the Zach Theatre campus
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., April 8, 2016
Down the rabbit hole.
Anyone who's toured the realm of the Red and White Queens and Mad Hatter and March Hare will know what that means. It's how Alice tumbles from a world of logic and reason into one of nonsense and irrationality. Typically, we've observed her fall from the comfortable remove of an easy chair at home or a seat in a theatre, with a page, stage, or screen to separate us from the lunacy that is Wonderland. But we don't get off that easily when Underbelly is running the show. In adapting Lewis Carroll's tale for Zach Theatre, this award-winning Austin theatre company employs the same approach that made its slip river the talk of the 2013 Cohen New Works Festival at the University of Texas: Move the audience with the show. In slip river, that meant patrons following its orphan hero into the Winship Drama Building basement, racing down narrow corridors and under stages as he chased freedom along an underground railground. Here, it's winding around and through buildings on Zach's campus in an urgent quest to find Alice. We drop down the rabbit hole, too.
And no matter how intimately you may know Wonderland and its inhabitants, the story takes on a very different feel when it's you coming face-to-eggshell with Humpty Dumpty, being addressed by the enigmatic Caterpillar, or having the Red Queen threaten off with your head. The strangeness of Carroll's topsy-turvy world becomes more immediate and disorienting, and you feel a good deal more empathy for poor Alice. Fortunately, we aren't left to wander aimlessly on our own as she is. Like concierges considerate of a tourist's unfamiliarity with the territory, playwright-directors Katie Bender and Gabrielle Reisman helpfully provide guides for our journey: four animals (Tortoise, Lizard, Mouse, and Dodo), each of whom takes charge of one-quarter of the audience and leads it in a different direction. If you pause to consider that these four groups of around 30 folks apiece must all encounter the same characters and experience the same nine scenes before reuniting in the theatre for the Knave of Hearts' trial, all without lengthy overlaps or delays, and how smoothly the whole operation moves, then you may well marvel at the ingenuity and coordinating skills of Bender and Reisman, who I suspect conducted military campaigns in their past lives.
But that's a thought that would only occur to Big People – as those of us taller than this show's target demographic are called here. Everyone else is far too busy learning the un-birthday song meant to distract that decapitation-happy Red Queen (a crisply haughty Madison Weinhoffer), serving as wickets in her croquet game, solving the riddle posed by the Caterpillar (Joseph Urick, equally affable and abstruse), sucking on a cinnamon mint so they can shrink to get through a passage, getting their Wonderland visas (which niftily double as hats and boats!), and avoiding the most ferocious White Rabbit ever (Urick again, but with serious road rage). How can they dwell on the show's clockwork workings (or even admire Mercedes O'Bannion's joyously trippy outfits) when they have so many places to go and unusual characters to meet – like Francesca Douglas' delightfully know-it-all Humpty Dumpty, Chase Brewer's earnest Knave of Hearts and sweetly dotty Sheep Duchess (apparently relocated to Wonderland from Hoboken), and Nicholas Kier's sweetly foggy Paper Queen. Not to mention helping Alice (a poised and smart Trinity Johnston at our performance) get home and reconcile with her parents.
This Alice, you see, is contemporary and temperamental; it's her anger that breaks the world and sends her to Wonderland, where the irrationality and rage she encounters reflects her own. And she can't get Wonderland's figures to settle down until she does. Yes, it's a pointed message that Reisman and Bender deliver here, but it works. Before we can come home through the looking glass, we have to see ourselves in it.
Alice In WonderlandZach Theatre's Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey, 512/476-0541
Through May 15
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min.