Zoot’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at Victoria Theatre
By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: [l to r]The Chesire Cat and the Caterpillar on a musroom as depicted by Zoot Theatere Company in “Alice in Wonderland” at Victoria Theatre Feb. 1
Four narrators with the shadowed eyes and stylized magenta/ginger/red wigs of a Lewis Carroll caricature tell you the story of Alice’s adventures after that. In the hands of the very creative Zoot Theatre Company, these same four narrators somehow become all the actors manipulating more than 24 puppets who populate that dream-like place.
“Alice in Wonderland” will be at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 1 for two matinees, in performances for the PNC Family Series and Frank N. Tait Foundation Discovery Series.
Alice herself is a real girl. Charming and ingenuous Reneika Williams was director Scott Stoney’s sought after choice for the role.
“We had done a version of my adapted script previously and I wanted her for Alice after she did an internship with the Human Race Theatre last summer,” Stoney explained. “At first she was tied up in a Wright State Theatre Department show, but became available at just the right time for Zoot’s show. We hope to take it on tour in the region later in the year.”
“I was surprised and honored as an African-American to be cast as Alice, but I’m learning tradition doesn’t matter,” Williams said. “As long as you have the talent, you just go for a role.”
Williams is delightfully convincing, meeting each of the well-known “Wonderland” citizens, now life size puppets. Some are manipulated on wheels, speedily; some are worn with metal harnesses, somewhat like putting a bass drum strap over the shoulders. Other creatures are on moving platforms or waved on poles.
The experienced actors – Juliet Howard-Welch, Eric Etarntz, Darren Brown and Gary Thompson – are also very experienced Zoot puppeteers. They have to be. Director Stoney has adapted the story for puppets and visible people and designed the play to run just about an hour, connecting most of the best loved “Alice” scenes. It is just right for the young audience it was designed for. Adults will appreciate the pace and skill of the performance, reflecting Stoney’s vision and puppet designer Tristan Cupp’s over-the-top interpretation of the characters.
“I hope we don’t scare anyone,” Cupp said. He went on to explain what he considers the “steam-punk” style of the characters. “The original Lewis Carroll era was the Industrial Revolution and people were intrigued by machinery – mechanical moving parts. We have used gears and moving parts for connecting body parts in surprising new ways.”
“I’m convinced as long as Alice isn’t frightened, no one else will be,” Stoney said. “She is the way in.”
Alice first meets a white rabbit manipulated by a very tall English-accented Gary Thompson with, as he described, “an acerbic attitude” She’s curious and interested, never seeming frightened at all.
Stoney’s script has many clever subtleties and his direction is so dynamic the characters and the scenarios whiz by, making it hard to distinguish who manages which puppet. A Southern-accented red pigeon is maintained in flight by Darren Brown. A dark caterpillar sits atop an eight- or nine-foot mushroom smoking a tiny hookah. Alice meets the duchess, dour and dark, and watches the flamingo croquet game.
Eric Etarntz and the ensemble in the tea party scene execute a sort of standing shell game so smoothly it seems choreographed, as does the “falling down the hole” introduction.
“Oh no,” Stoney said, “we just worked it out in rehearsal.” When the tea party ends, Juliet Howard-Welch deftly steers the whole table away on its antique bicycle wheels.”
It also takes all four puppeteers to animate the Cheshire cat, who comes together and magically disappears in parts.
“Curious and curiouser” says Alice, clad in a charming Victorian style dress, designed and constructed by Shirley Wasser, who has done her usual creative and inventive costumes for the production.
All 24 puppets are rather sternly Victorian, a far more challenging vision than sugar-sweet pastels of TV cartoons. We can always depend on Tristan Cupp and his Zoot artists to present the unusual, never a cliché.
When Cupp watched his creations being manipulated by puppeteer/actors in rehearsals, he appears to be charmed anew. If some small part does not work as anticipated, it seems to pain him. Clearly he will immediately devise a more secure solution. When all goes well, he beams like a proud parent.
His creativity and vision have always earned great respect from Scott Stoney and others in the Human Race Theatre. Years ago, Cupp was master carpenter for the Human Race Company and as they worked together, a deep mutual admiration developed. Actors know the strength of every production is as dependent on the skill of all their technical crews as on their performances.
For “Alice” John Rensel did the lighting design, Andrew Stroud the sound design and Sara Gomes did props – from tiny to huge – depending on the puppet size. Elle Riley took over as stage manager, a job she described as requiring people skills, organization and keeping everyone on task.
Lewis Carroll – foremost a mathematician, but with a dizzying sense of whimsy and love of words – would be intrigued with what has become a 21st century “Alice in Wonderland,” tightly planned and gloriously beyond imagination.
The Victoria Theatre Association’s PNC Family Series presents “Alice in Wonderland” on Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Performances at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information please call 937.228.3630 or visit TicketCenterStage.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.