In the last ten minutes of Plan-B Theatre’s ‘Radio Hour: Alice’ production, the audience no longer can find even fleeting solace in laughing nervously at the detritus and hellish zoo that populate the Underworld landscape. The gradually descending air of creepiness finally takes hold as the Psychopomp (the narrator and conductor of the underworld transit) makes clear there will be no usual metaphors and even young Alice has been robbed of the dubious prize of having dreamed it all.
Layered against David Evanoff’s highly effective cold-steel music, the Psychopomp (played with the definitive galvanic tone by Bill Allred), in an eerily measured cadence, tells the audience:
“Return fully to the outer world, remembering this: at any time you can come again to Wonderland. As you re-orient yourself, remember the pathways of this journey you’ve just taken: the rabbit hole, the pool of tears, the woods, the door in the tree. Know that the creatures you saw today are waiting for you, always, in the cobwebs of your child’s mind. Always.”
The world premiere production of Plan-B’s fifth annual radio hour, appropriately styled for the Halloween season, scores strongly on every possible note. Written by Matthew Ivan Bennett, whose masterful brush strokes slyly push Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice stories into the territory of nightmarish hallucinations breaching the borders of fantasy and imagination, the play is realized expertly under Cheryl Ann Cluff’s direction. (For a preview of the play, see here.)
Emma Munson, 15, finds all of the right notes in Alice, interpreting the role as a liminal figure, partly a prisoner of her own fragmented psyche but also a penetrating heroine. This is a seriously impressive young actress.
The rest of the cast – Tobin Atkinson, Jay Perry and Teresa Sanderson – carries the production with exceptional results in leading the audience inward and downward toward the creepy, claustrophobic chambers inhabited by the story. The live sound effects designed by Cory Thorell and performed by foley artist Daisy Blake perfectly round out the creepy sonic landscape. Equally noteworthy are the efforts of Jesse Portillo, lighting design; Randy Rasmussen, set design; Mark and Eric Robinette, sound mixing, and Jennifer Freed, stage manager.
There are several unforgettable moments. When Alice encounters the Caterpillar and frets about being just three inches high, Sanderson inflects the voice in chilling psychedelic effect as she tells Alice: “It is a very good height indeed! Three inches is all you need!” And, in the next instant, the Caterpillar, having rolled off the mushroom, offers only one piece of advice before disappearing and angrily dismissing Alice as a buffoon: “One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter. / Expect from me no more quarter.”
There is a deftly handled cruel and callous effect in Sanderson’s voice here, later on cast in a subtly yet still enormously significant variation as the Queen of Cups. Alice is a mere object herself – a nearly inconspicuous figment – a fragment not of her own identity but of one drawn and defined by others (read here: masculine). Indeed, Atkinson so effectively voices his characters that one should justifiably laugh at the fantastical absurdity of a world where all of the masculine rights have been so roundly usurped.
Another key moment comes in the climactic scene of the nonsensical trial with the Mad Hatter, played with such convincingly disturbing interpretation by Perry. Allred, as Psychopomp, embraces the fully unsettling effect of Bennett’s prose here: “The Hatter bites a large piece out of his teacup instead of the bread and butter. Ceramic shards slice through lip and tongue as the Hatter gnashes. Blood dribbles down his dress shirt. He winks at you and clutches at his crotch.”
With the Queen’s order of execution imminent, the Hatter lurches at Alice as he “thrusts his craterous face through your blond hair and breathes out on your neck.” Perry exhales an unearthly sound and, in a carnal whisper, says to Alice, “Come with me, Alice! I can save you from this! Say you want it!”
At this point in the production, the creepy grip is now solid in the intimate space of the theater and in the audience. There is no doubt here that Alice will return to Wonderland to stand again before these dark characters. Each of us must wrestle with our own Wonderland. In a fleeting moment, anyone of us can be enmeshed in our own nightmarish trial. A thoughtful young man trying to be a kind host, brutally assaulted by neighbors, is tried on child kidnapping charges. A retired teacher, who has never had a speeding ticket, is zapped with a Taser at airport security and arrested. A woman journalist, thinking nothing of any cultural breach, is taken into custody by Islamic authorities for entering the men-only Internet café at a Riyadh coffee shop.
As compelling as the live theater production is, one can really get the full effect by listening to one of the two live broadcasts on Friday, Oct. 30, on KUER-FM/XM satellite radio at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. The broadcast is part of Doug Fabrizio’s RadioWest program. This is the fifth and the last of the current series of Radio Hour productions.
At the time of this writing, most of the ten performances have been sold out. Tickets are available especially for the 11 a.m. performance (the live broadcast) on Oct. 30 and both Halloween performances at 4 and 8 p.m. Ticket information is available here.
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