Theatre Nouveau skillfully strips down Alice while the final Foote gets a toehold at Theatre Three
With a little help from her friends, the title character in Theatre Nouveau 47's silly, sometimes thrilling Alice in Wonderland and Other Hallucinations takes a high-flying tumble down the rabbit hole. Using the dreamlike, no-frills adaptation of Lewis Carroll's stories by Andre Gregory and The Manhattan Project, the little company now housed at Fair Park's Magnolia Lounge makes up in rich vocal dexterity and lively movement what it lacks in sets, lights and costumes.
Their Alice, played by blond waif Danielle Pickard, runs onto a tiny stage edged with lumps of people "sleeping rough," as the Brits refer to the homeless who take shelter in doorways and tube stations. Alice quivers with fright, a child realizing she's been separated from her mother in a crowd. Then she picks up a red book, and the story of Alice in Wonderland erupts around her. The sleepers, dressed in layers of rags and tatters, rise and lift Alice, turning her toes over teakettle. Down she goes into the netherworld of Mad Hatter's tea parties, croquet matches and nonsensical conversations with a giant caterpillar (Ben Bryant) and an egg-shaped man (Randy Pearlman). How will she ever get home again?
This piece was the hit of last summer's Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center. Theatre Nouveau 47, in reviving it in their new home space, has made it a full evening of theater by adding a 40-minute first act to what formerly was a brisk little one-hour play. The new material uses the same low-tech, movement-centric style to act out two other Carroll poems: The Phantasmagoria, a ghost story with a shaggy-dog ending, and The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits), a "Jabberwocky"-like verse-play about a clueless sailing crew searching for a nonexistent sea creature.
The extra bits are all right, but they're not as visually interesting or as playfully acted as Alice, so they make the show feel about 15 minutes too long. All the energy needed for Alice also seems a little sapped now by the efforts poured into the other two pieces preceding it. Director Tom Parr IV, whose wife, Kristin, aided in the script adaptations, created a gem last summer with Alice. If some of the fizz has gone out of it, blame all the frumious galumphing used for Phantasmagoria and Snark.
Still, there's lots to like in the second half of the evening, when Alice finally begins her adventures among the uffish creatures of Carroll's fantasy. Theatre Nouveau's players—Pickard, Pearlman, Brian Witkowicz, Ben Bryant, Whitney Holotik, Clay Wheeler and Elora McLeod—need only their bendy bodies, textured voices and random bits of fabric and cardboard to create dozens of different Wonderland characters. There's no fancy scenery here, just repurposed trash such as coffee cans and milk crates, stacked this way and that to serve as tea party furniture or the egg man's wall. The White Queen's croquet match is played through human wickets with human croquet balls whacked through them.
Make-it-work theater is often necessary for a fledgling company short on funds. But magical moments do happen on a stage without having to spend scads on special effects. When Pickard's Alice eats the cake that makes her grow into a giantess, the stretch of diaphanous blue fabric pulled from her skirts as the other actors raise her to their shoulders is all the visual pop we need to get the image. (Kristin Parr also designed the costumes.) And it takes only a second or two to realize that the mumbling dude atop a mushroom made of open umbrellas is a gonzo Hunter S. Thompson version of Carroll's hookah-smoking caterpillar.
In New York this spring, a stripped-down prequel to Peter Pan called Peter and the Starcatcher was performed by the New York Theatre Workshop and was a big success, getting critical buzz as the antithesis to the tens of millions flushed away on Julie Taymor's Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Like Theatre Nouveau's Alice in Wonderland, Peter used simple props and lots of physicality to create the illusion of Neverland.
In theaters these days, we're used to hearing the request that the audience turn off cell phones and other techno gadgetry once the curtain goes up. Isn't it nice that some shows also are inviting us to leave our good old-fashioned imaginations fully engaged?
The last play to join this spring's ongoing Horton Foote Festival is The Roads to Home, now running on the main stage at Theatre Three. It's a fine, funny finale to an area-wide celebration by more than a dozen theaters of the native Texan playwright's heartfelt, homespun plays about plain people in small towns in the early 20th century.
The Roads to Home, directed with healthy dollops of comedic meringue by Terry Dobson, is a trio of episodic one-act plays about the same set of characters in Harrison, Texas, Foote's fictional stand-in for his hometown of Wharton. The first play, A Nightingale, set in 1924, finds two neighboring biddies, played by Pam Dougherty and Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, clucking away about town gossip as they fold laundry and roll out pie crusts. Religion, a topic in most every Foote play, comes up several times. "Catholics pray, honey," says Baptist housewife Mabel (Dougherty), "but not like regular Christians."
A visitor from Houston, young wife Annie Long (Renee Kelly), keeps showing up around breakfast time on Mabel's porch. She's a flighty girl, sometimes confused about how many children she has and exactly where she's left them. Clearly, Annie is...troubled. Probably a candidate for a long rest in the "asylum in Austin" the ladies keep talking about.
The second play, The Dearest of Friends, touches on something Foote wasn't so comfortable with in his plays: sex. Somebody's having it with a lady who isn't his wife. Mabel and Vonnie (Pyeatt) share some sensitive information about the behavior of their husbands (Jerry Crow, Andrew Kasten). It's a melancholy comedy about good Southern manners gone awry.
Spring Dance, the third play, finds Annie in that special Austin hospital four years later. It's prom night, and her fellow patients—Michael Serrecchia, Shane Beeson, Aaron Parks—are dressed in formal attire (costumes by Michael Robinson are decently period-appropriate). Alternately giddy and sad, pretty Annie goes over and over the reasons for her unfortunate separation from husband and family. There's a Suddenly Last Summer tone to Foote's writing in this one (his plays often sound like Sunday school versions of Tennessee Williams). But its wispy tragedy effectively balances the broad humor of the evening's opening scenes.
Performances are terrific all around, with Dougherty leading the cast in Theatre Three's best production of its season. Crabbing about being replaced by a "rich lady with dyed hair" as the organist at church, Dougherty's Mabel punctuates her words with staccato knife-stabs into raw piecrust. It's a genius little gesture that gets a big reaction. After two months of these plays, sharp moments like that are sweet salvation in another two hours of Horton Foote's folksy chats and chews.
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