Adapted from the works of Lewis Carroll
by Debra Wise & the Company
Directed by Greg Smucker
Featuring Will Cabell, Derek Stearns, and Debra Wise
Underground Railway Theatre at Durrell Hall, Camb. YMCA
820 Mass. Ave. Cambridge / (781) 643-6916

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The Underground Railway's revival of their award-winning "Alice's Adventure's Underground" brings one of Artistic director and co-founder Debra Wise's signature pieces back into their repertory. This people and puppets piece was first performed in 1998 and toured for several seasons. As with most of their shows, it was developed collaboratively with the company, which in this case includes composer Roger Miller, (formerly of rock band Mission to Burma, now a mainstay of the avant-garde Alloy Orchestra), and musician/composer Evan Harlan who accompanies the action at the keyboard and with a variety of percussion and effects. Original lyrics and additional text have been supplied by children's author Robyn Su Miller and dramaturg Wanda Strukus. The current version is a fast paced eighty minutes based on both of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books plus quotes from "The Hunting of the Snark".

Wise herself plays Alice, as a harried thirty-something mother of Carol, played alternately by Jesse Olivia Hyde McLaughlin or Jenna Spencer, both local 5th graders with experience at the Wheelock Family Theatre. Regional actor Derek Stearns, who toured the show before, plays her husband, whose pet name for his wife is "boojum"--the real identity of the snark. The show takes place on the evening he is to receive an important literary award. Carol wants to be read to from "Through the Looking Glass', and the babysitter's late. After Daddy leaves so as not to be late, Alice dives through her looking glass, which has been showing her new wrinkles, with a little help from Will Cabell. This veteran URT performer, their former tech director, and head of his own Starbird Puppet Theatre, seen a month ago as the older actor in "A Life in the Theatre" first appears as Lewis Carroll himself, stepping out of a grandfather clock. During the course of the show Cabell appears as the March Hare, the Frog Footman, and the Duchess. As Carroll he also manipulates a half-sized puppet of the heroine, an even larger one of the Red Queen, and several giant figures seen over the set as well as being key to such multi-operator figures as Humpty Dumpty and the Caterpillar. And of course he plays Tweedle Dee to Stearn's Tweedle Dum. URT actor/puppeteers have to be versatile.

Stearns plays the White Rabbit--of course--plus the Mad Hatter, Humpty, and various handpuppets, The three adult actors, all Equity, plus Carol are joined by four to six young actors from the community recruited for the show. For this run, these are Aviva Hamavid, Salina Heredia, Nathan King, Marko Lathko, Quiana McDaniel, Samara Powell, Cameron Ramas, Allysa Sahagian, and Olivia Wise. Olivia's sister Eliza Rose Fichter was the original Carol. This busy squad are called the Dream Children, playing bit parts such as the Playing Cards/Croquet Wickets, moving scenery and joining Carol as she flits through Wonderland ahead of her mother. Working offstage and on during the show is current technical director, Sarah Scheuble, a recent graduate from the UConn Puppetry program.

The many scenes in this show--at least three dozen--would not be possible without Will Cabell's ingenious patented scene change method. Using heavy weight fiberglass tent pole he constructed flexible arches which go over the playing area plus one behind which supports either a backdrop or a shadow screen. All the scenery, designed and painted by internationally known muralist David Fichter, the company's main designer, is executed on silk and pocketed to slide up and over the set. Each arch holds several scenes connected as necessary by silk tubes. The cast, whether adults or children, can change these units quickly by sliding them back and forth for a truly magical effect. Because they are flexible the arches can also be bent down, to form scenes such as Humpty Dumpty’s wall.

Add to this versatility breathtaking puppets created by various artists and puppet builders, projected white and colored shadows, plus a constant change of scale mirroring Alice's adventures, and the result is sheer wonder. The URT has produced some gorgeous large scale shadow shows for symphony performances, plus historical and educational efforts for school touring. But "Alice..." takes their sophisticated techniques to a new level, especially under Greg Smucker’s direction. It's good to have the show back.

As well as appearing in legitimate dramas such as "Trust" for Sugan and "The Real Thing" at the New Rep, Wise has involved the URT in co-producing the annual Woman on Top Theatre Festival, celebrating new works by New England women working in the theatre coming up later this season at the BCA. She also tours Melinda Lopez's literacy play, "How Do you Spell Hope?", often with Dorian Christian-Baucum, who just finished "Blues for an Alabama Sky" for Our Place at the BCA. The two will be seen at the Y in March.

This production also marks the renovation of Durrell Hall at the Cambridge YMCA in Central Square. Built for lectures and Chattaqua performances in 1987, this venue has been unavailable since the '50s. The site may become a much sought after mid-sized venue with convenient parking and access to public transportation. URT and the Norah Theatre have been in negotiation with M.I.T. for space in that institution's developments at the bottom at the Square, which seem to be taking forever. If neither of them takes this hall on, there are other companies in town which should consider it.

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