Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 29, 2006
Those of you who haven’t ventured down the rabbit hole lately should take this opportunity to see this unique and wildly imaginative adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic story. This production is a part of the Dream Music Puppetry Program, whose goal is to produce new works of puppetry combined with live music. This is the perfect structure for this story, and creators Lake Simons and John Dyer make the most of it by giving us an explosion of surrealistic sight and sound. I do have to admit that much of the actual story is a little lost in this production, but that is more than made up for by their show’s visceral appeal.
Most people know the story, but what version do we know? I feel fairly safe in saying that the majority of us know the Disney version, but like most books turned into movies there are gaps and scenes that are left out for length and continuity reasons. This production skips from scene to scene without much connection; had I not been familiar with the story I would have been quite lost.
Like a surrealist painting, this production highlights the dreamlike mindscape, the absurdities, and the odd juxtapositions that Carroll uses in his story, but what’s left out is much of the quirky dialogue and character interactions. The dialogue that exists is spoken by either Simons or Dyer. Simons only voices Alice from her position on stage as puppeteer while Dyer voices all the other characters from his position just offstage as bandleader. This works as a funny gag for awhile but eventually I felt that more time may have been spent creating unique character voices. Many things about Carroll’s parody of Victorian life are quite funny but most of these things are lost due to the missing dialogue.
Despite these issues I had a great time at this show. Simons is without a doubt one of New York’s most talented puppet engineers (by engineer I mean she designs, choreographs, and operates her puppets). Whatever she touches springs to life with a seeming desire to live forever. She mixes puppet design styles such as bunraku and shadow and she creates a very subjective world that one feels compelled to enter and share with her. There are several scenes, such as the one in which Alice is chasing the mouse that is swimming in the flood created by her tears, that absolutely swept me away. I felt as if I was genuinely living in a dream and I think that would have pleased Mr. Carroll.
The driving force throughout the show are the brilliant compositions of John Dyer. His five-piece band rocks, underscores and opens doors to this strange world. Dyer uses sound like text, creating a story all its own. For example, he uses a bell as if to say “look over here” whenever a certain object comes on stage. He also uses theme songs for certain characters (the rabbit has one of the coolest of these) that are heard whenever that character enters. Apart from the sound effects and theme songs, Dyer also creates some beautifully written and alluringly melodic tunes out of Carroll’s text. There are some moments when the pace of these tunes seems to drag a little but I saw that as all a part of this roller coaster ride of a show.
Another unique aspect of this truly exceptional show is the way Simons uses her team of co-puppeteers as a sort of Greek chorus. They of course animate puppets (and they all do so with great skill and precision) but they also enter the story as support characters here and there.
This production should not be missed. But who should not miss it: children, adults, or both? I’d have to say adults— children will certainly be stimulated by the visual and aural aspects, but the lack of a discernable story may leave them a little disinterested by the end of the program. Still, all of the creative elements are extremely cohesive, from the gorgeous lighting (courtesy of James Latzel) to the intricate choreography of the bunraku puppeteers to the inspired music. Simons and Dyer are a formidable creative team and I hope to see more of their collaborations reach New York stages.