Theater : Charter School presents "Alice in America-land"
Students take on a lively and original update of Lewis Carroll's classic with plenty of laughs.
It's not your typical school play. A satire on the consumer/corporate lifestyle featuring a slew of American stereotypes and a load of one-liners, is the kind of production that could so easily fall flat on its face with a group of non-professionals, never mind a group of junior high and high school students. Yet the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School's "Alice in America-land," a contemporary take on the Lewis Carroll classic, is right on target - and very funny and well acted.
In this updated version of "Alice in Wonderland," the heroine walks through her TV screen and into a mind-numbing whirl of modern day characters, each with their own agenda.
Drama teacher and director Treather Gassman and Jane Loutzenhiser, assistant director, have done a wonderful job of coaxing adult comedic performances out of a cast made up of students from grades 5 through 11. While these youthful actors may not be entirely familiar with the personalities they're portraying, they still manage - often brilliantly - to nail modern age stereotypes.
In the lead role, seventh-grader Bella Maidoff plays Alice, responding to the cast of zany characters that barrage her with just the right amount of aplomb. A natural actress, Ms. Maidoff allows the other performers to take their turns center stage while keeping the narrative flowing and the audience grounded as they sympathize with her plight.
On her adventure, Alice encounters various characters: a fatalistic White Rabbit, a consumer advocate Mock Turtle, a new age caterpillar, a role-reversed bickering Duke and Duchess, a survivalist Humpty Dumpty, an aspiring rock star, Dodo, a fitness guru, a phony psychic, TV pitchmen, politicians, PR people, and more. The characters often cleverly incorporate traits of the Lewis Carroll originals. As an opportunistic reporter, the Cheshire Cat (Morgan Taylor) slyly licks her paws as she smells a juicy story.
Ms. Gassman's casting skills are clear. Not only do the slyly satirized characters come through loud and clear, but the students' personalities shine in this comedy. Ms. Gassman has managed to channel youthful energy and creativity into a variety of manic characters. Just about every member of the cast gets a uniquely hilarious turn in the limelight, and there will no doubt be bouts of applause for a number of the clever stars.
A couple of inspired pairings make for two of Alice's most delightful encounters. Alistair Rizza as the Mad Hatter and little Susa Breese as the March Hare play a duo of bitter, aging comedians, and roast the hapless Alice. They are hysterically spot-on and really outshine their material, although some of the gags are quite funny. "She's the only person I know who phones Dial-a-Prayer to see if she's got any messages," quipped the Mad Hatter.
Fifth-graders Violet Kennedy and Danielle Hopkins have a wonderful turn as animal rights activists Tweedledum and Tweedledee as they recite an oyster-sympathetic version of "The Walrus and the Carpenter." These wee bards are charmingly sophisticated in their recitation and choreography -reminding us that kids can be genius at mimicry. Further proof of this is revealed in Ry Brodsky's performance as an over-the-top pitchman and Ruby Dix as a vain personal trainer. The humor in the production is enhanced by the actors' obvious fun in spoofing adults.
The play was written by Dennis Snee, a former gag writer for Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, and Rodney Dangerfield. As you can imagine, it's littered with one-liners. The kids deliver the material like pros - even when they just don't get it. In rehearsal, the line "But then again I thought Joan Rivers's face was real," drew a blank with the cast. (It's hard to believe that we've finally reached a generation unaware of Joan Rivers.) There's a lot of schtick that adults will appreciate, while even the littlest audience members will love the colorful characters and non-stop action.
A satirical social commentary may seem an odd choice for this group, but Ms. Gassman explains that the play works especially well as a show that can be viewed on two levels.
"The whole play is about Alice confronting things in the adult world that she doesn't understand, like materialism, and trying to make sense of it all." For example, she refers to one scene in which a caucus race, in Alice's dream state, becomes an actual running race between the Dodo, the Eagle, and the campaigning Dormouse.
A big fan of "Alice in Wonderland," Ms. Gassman says that she chose the material partly because it has a big and involved cast. "Each kid has a little vignette," she says. And partly because it gives the kids exposure to relevant topics. She notes, "I like that it says something about society and gets kids to think a little bit." In rehearsals, the young cast seemed very engaged with the material, asking questions about why some of the jokes worked and what motivated their characters.
The director explains that in rehearsals she focused on listening and reacting to other's lines. "In real life we're not talking in a vacuum and I'm trying to get them to remember that on stage," she says.
The results are evident as the cast tackles the tricky field of scripted comedy, which relies so much on reactions and interactions, and they deliver the goods brilliantly. "They're learning so much about life in the process of getting the show out there to production level," Ms. Gassman says. "They're all really helping each other. They're supportive, listening to each other."
"Alice in America-land," 7 pm, Friday, March 19, 2 and 7 pm, Saturday, March 20, Grange Hall, West Tisbury. By M.V. Public Charter School. $6; $4 children; $20 family.
Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.