Few children’s literary works are filled with as much whimsy and imagination as Lewis Carroll’s one-of-a-kind “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Originally created by a 19th century British mathematics professor as a way to entertain three restless children on a boat ride, it’s only fitting that the Creative Cauldron uses the play as a springboard to showcase the talents of the participating children in their Learning Program.
In this spirit, “Alice in Wonderland” isn’t just a performance but a showcase for the Creative Cauldron’s Learning Theater program which is an intensive eight-week children’s theater course for kids ranging from age 7 – 13. Ellen Selby, who runs the Learning Theater program, adapted and co-directed the play with Creative Cauldron creative director Laura Connors Hull.
Borrowing from both of Carroll’s seminal novels “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Selby and Hull mix things up but retain much of the complexities of the word play and opportunities for imagery that makes Carroll’s work so distinct.
Aside from three professional actors – Izzy Smelkinson as the White Rabbit, Will Stevenson as The Queen of Hearts (whose enthusiasm for the catch phrase “off with their head” is contagious), and E. Augustus Knapp as the King of Hearts — the production is made up entirely of children.
“We wanted to push them,” said Selby.
At times, the children appeared overwhelmed by the complexity of the material, but no one can accuse Creative Cauldron of letting them coast on easy material. There’s a certain thrill in its own right of seeing children be challenged by difficulty and an even greater thrill when they nail it.
In particular, Aashna Kapur and Libby Brooke get the absurdist rapport of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare and are able to deliver the irony with glee. Similarly, Emily Martin as the tragic mock turtle delivers a soliloquy (Carroll’s play on an antiquated dish: Mock Turtle Soup). Each of the soloists brings something to the role that indicates potential.
If the legend is to be believed, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (or at least the story’s key outline) was made up on the spot when Carroll (then known as Charles Dodgson before adopting a Latinization of his name as a pen name) was tasked with entertaining his friend’s children. Dodgson was a professor in mathematics, a lover of games and was known among his peers as an inventor of word puzzles and ciphers.
His seminal pair of works are therefore littered with double meanings, word plays and literary tropes that spark the reader to reimagine their reality. The character of the March Hare, for example, comes from the old British saying “Mad as a March hare” and the character of the Cheshire cat comes from a common simile of the time “to grin like a Cheshire cat.” The “caucus race” where the characters run around in circles without purpose or destination, is supposed to be satire of the politics of the time as is much of the show.
“The most important thing to empower them was ‘how do we give 19th century syllogisms meaning? We have to own it’ I taught them so we looked at things scene by scene,” said Selby.
“Our hope is that the kids will enjoy it on one level and the adults will enjoy it on another level and that there will be some room where they’ll meet in the middle. But even if not, the show works on so many levels that you don’t have to be some literary genius to enjoy the upside-down world of Alice in Wonderland,” said musical director and choreography Matt Conner.
Conner composed nine songs for the production and co-arranged them with synthesizer. Although the songs are somewhat aurally simple, they do encapsulate a variety of genres with “Beautiful Soup” sounding a little like a doowop number, “The Caterpillar Song” (belted with a memorable ferocity by Owen Thiebert) sounding psychedelic, “The Tea Party” sounding like a baroque minuet and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” being accompanied by a bouncy stride piano motif.
Conner felt that the material was so dense, he didn’t want to try to distract and while his music is mostly about giving call or response numbers, there’s something that’s added by the ferocity.
Carroll’s book is unique because it uses wordplay and verbose imagery to transport a child to another world with relative ease. A play adaptation generates the same sense of wonder albeit more through sensory opportunities. In that sense, when certain phrasings are lost to the audience (particularly the young ones), it’s Conner’s music and the set and costume design that ably cover the gap.
Maggie Jervis, who has over 20 years experience in the industry, designed the costumes and sets here. It was during the opening weekend’s question and answer session that she deservedly received a slice of the star treatment by some of the children for her work.
Of the 17 years that Creative Cauldron has been in operation, they have been doing the theater for ten years, and it’s been one of their biggest successes.
“We do these 16 performance runs, and many of our season-pass holders who don’t have children, they come because they are amazed at the levels these children get to, but it’s certainly very friendly of course, so it’s entertaining on all levels,” said Laura Connors Hull.
“Alice in Wonderland” runs through April 14 at the Creative Cauldron (410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church).