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Theater review: Alice in Wonderland at Asheville Community Theatre

Theater review: Alice in Wonderland at Asheville Community Theatre

Asheville Community Theatre’s new production of Alice in Wonderland relies on a stellar ensemble and spectacular costumes to breathe new life into the classic tale of young Alice falling through the looking glass. The century-old language may sound dated, and the story may be an opium-induced fever dream, but the packed house was filled to the brim with enraptured children and smiling adults. It is definitely worth seeing, especially if you have little ones.

There is perhaps no piece of culture so malleable and long-lasting as Alice. ACT has chosen a popular and traditional adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Victorian novels. The script, itself a classic from 1932, is by Florida Friebus and Eva Le Gallienne.

The original tales rely heavily on puns and subversions of English society at the middle of the 19th century, so the text is probably closer to Shakespeare than to contemporary children’s theater. Much of the language will fly right over the heads of adult viewers, let alone their kids.

But, crucially, the spectacle of the piece and the clever staging by director Candice Burchill is enough to keep viewers engaged and delighted.

Even when there are stretches with not much physical action, the glorious costumes by Carina Lopez provide an endless feast for hungry eyes. Every shoe, pant, and wig on the 20-plus cast seems meticulously chosen and expertly fitted, with bright colors and psychedelic patterns that put Tim Burton to shame. In many ways, Lopez’s costumes are the star of the show. They raise the bar sky-high for community theater production quality.

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Lopez’ designs are afforded a beautiful and unique backdrop in the form of scenic designer Ben Harrison’s set — a pastel, impressionistic affair complete with a second story and a slide. Likewise, lights by Bryan Marks create a dramatic wash and employ more than a few laser-precise spots.

The stunning visual impact of the production design is paired with a strong ensemble consisting of actors of all ages. Alice is played by seventh-grader Sadie Medlock, who has the extraordinary challenge of appearing onstage virtually every minute of this two-hour production. Medlock is a strong actor with an obvious appreciation for the different beats that make up her many scenes. Her occasional flashes of humor and puckish defiance add a real depth to Alice.

There are far too many actors in the 25-person cast to mention everyone by name, but I will say that this is a talented ensemble. Across the board, precise diction and expressive physical gestures help clarify the old-fashioned language and engage audiences of all ages.

There are, of course, a few standout performances. One is the Mad Hatter, played by Bradshaw Call. Clad in delectable plaid pants and sporting a dyed beard and eye shadow, Call’s Hatter is flamboyant and captivating. His never-ending tea time with Alice, the March Hare (Mark Jones), and the Dormouse (Baylor Prevatt) is one of the most entertaining scenes of the show.

As the maddeningly in-sync Tweedledee and Tweedeldum, Jacob Dickson (Dee) and Kaidan Miller (Dum) are a joy to watch. They commit full-on to their absurd characters, and their poems and pantomimes have a fluid, well-rehearsed quality that is hard not to love. Their enormous hoop bellies are a plus, too.

Under ordinary circumstances, viewers may be forgiven for confusing the three different queens within Alice. But because they were all so well differentiated here, both by costume and by character, each one possessed a distinct and fantastic energy.

The Queen of Hearts (Heather Rudzenski) is a manic, larger-than-life presence who dominates the stage. The Red Queen (Myra McCoury) is as indomitable as the Queen of Hearts, but McCoury brings a wicked sophistication to the role that is simply delicious to watch. On the other hand, the White Queen (Sophie Stanley) is a stammering maternal figure who is literally coming apart at the seams. Stanley is very funny and a wonderful contrasting presence to her two regal counterparts.

John Hall as the Caterpillar and Sadie Medlock as Alice in ACT’s  Alice in Wonderland.

John Hall as the Caterpillar and Sadie Medlock as Alice in ACT’s Alice in Wonderland.

There’s a great moment in Act II when the White Knight (Robert Prevatt Jr.), during his rhyming song to Alice, adds some modern musical flourishes. It was funny and helped humanize a script that, due to its age and absurdist spirit, can seem a little distant. I wish there was more of that in this production. A little air could do a lot, here.

Nevertheless, this is as fine a production of Alice in Wonderland as you’re likely to see this side of Walt Disney. The visual effects, particularly the costumes, are downright stunning, and the cast, animated by director Burchill’s staging, keeps things lively and bright. You’ll be glad you fell down this rabbit hole.

Performances are Friday-Sunday through April 21 at Asheville Community Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit ashevilletheatre.org.

(Photos: Studio Misha Photography/Courtesy of Asheville Community Theatre)

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