Presented by People's Branch Theatre
Dec. 2-11 at the Belcourt Theatre
For tickets, call 846-3150
Risk is a staple of theatrical life. It comes with the territory. Achieving artistic success is a formidable challenge, and financial success is even more problematic. Mounting a theatrical production in the face of such uncertainty requires unbridled faithwhich explains how People's Branch Theatre producer Matt Chiorini managed to schedule the play Wonderland into his '04-'05 season before the script was even written. PBT opens its new adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories this week, and, in typical fashion, the company is relying on the creativity of a relatively small coterie of artists to breathe new life into a classic piece of literature. But when PBT announced its play lineup last spring, Wonderland only existed as a concept in the mind of associate artistic director Holly Allen.
"Holly's original idea began to evolve back in February," Chiorini says. "We then talked to Ross Brooks about drafting a script, and he's been working since then. Thematically, the play offers exciting and relevant commentary on society, specifically, what teens go throughwhat we expect of them, vs. what we tell them to do, vs. what they see on TV and the Internet. Our Alice is set loose in a pop culture wonderland to fend for herself, with no guidance or supervision, and we witness what happens to her."
Brooks, an actor currently performing during the day at Nashville Children's Theatre, also holds an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. Wonderland is his first major Nashville production as a playwright. His script, while not set in a specifically stated time frame, telegraphs its modernity via contemporary psychological concepts enhanced by a techno musical score and rear-screen film projections. The actors include Denice Hicks as Alice, with Misty Lewis and Marlon Styles performing such familiar characters as the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Red Queen and others. The performing ensemble also includes Karen Coleman, Hilda Parks and Ronja Roland, otherwise collectively known as Victory of Praise, a local dance troupe.
"This is a drastic take on Alice," Brooks says. "It's a huge departure, yet the characters are derived from the books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The biggest problem I faced with the original works was that, at the end, Alice wakes up. Dramatically, I didn't find that very interesting. She wakes from her dreams and it's all over. I wanted to give her a journey as a contemporary character. Here she begins as a 10-year-old and in the course of the play grows into a young woman. Nothing is like it is in the famous Disney animated version. What I really wanted was to get away from any preconceived notions of the story."
"Being young is such a weird time in your life," the 31-year-old Brooks says, "and everyone who's gone through it knows exactly what I'm talking about. You couldn't pay me to go back and be a teenager."
With those sensibilities as inspiration, the Nashville native uses the Alice stories to develop a strong theme revolving around the loss of innocence. "The way that kids perceive themselves these days is kind of frightening to me," Brooks continues. "They are bombarded and saturated with media images telling them how they should look and act and think and feel, and all of this is causing a huge psychological problem. Young people these days don't seem to know who they are. 'Am I a waif or a supermodel or a star? Is this really going to fulfill me and make me more "me"?' We live in a modern world where sex and talents and abilities are commodities to be used and packaged. While some people turn out OK in situations like that, it tends to destroy a lot of others."
Brooks puts his personal imprint on these fertile ideas in a single 80-minute act. The musical score, which includes two vocal numbers, was co-written by Brooks and sound and media designer Nathan Shuppert. The Belcourt Theatre's rear wall will be filled with live-action film images and computer graphics, while performers play out the dialogue on a minimalist set. "The dancers help to physicalize some ideas and add a movement element," says Brooks. "For example, they're an integral part of the Caterpillar scene. So, no, this is not going to be the Alice books you've read."
Allen, whose brainstorm launched the project, is making her debut as a stage director. She's quick to credit Wonderland's cast and creative team. "Being a new director, I've been happy to see this evolve as an ensemble and collaborative experience. People have felt free to share their opinions. Ross has been very vocal about how the scenes are played out, about ways to get to the action, about making cuts to get the script to a playable length. We're using all the artist groups: original music, acting, design, film and dance. This is a signature People's Branch production, which means it's physically imaginative. I'd put it somewhere between PG and PG-13."
Hicks, a veteran of previous PBT productions, believes that the spirit of Carroll's original is intact in Wonderland, but that the Allen/Brooks concept has transformed the story into something with latter-day relevance. "As opposed to the whimsy of the books," she says, "this moves it into topical areas. Alice travels from innocence into experience. I see it as a story that says, 'No matter how weird the world gets, if you can hang on to who you are, you'll be OK.' "
On the heels of recent acclaimed productions based on works by C.S. Lewis and Fyodor Dostoevsky, PBT yet again put a contemporary spin on great fiction. "What Wonderland has in common with other PBT adaptations," says stage manager Brenda Sparks, "is respect for the original, yet a real passion to get to the essence of the tale, to tell it in a fresh and compelling way. Everyone has a say in the final product, and it takes real strength as artists to thrive in this environment."
To complete PBT's multimedia thrustand in synch with Bridgestone's sponsorship of Wonderlandgaily painted tires, courtesy of local artists, will reside in the lobby of the Belcourt during the show's run.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
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Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.