Over the past 145 years, Charles Dodgson's (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) "Alice" books (a.k.a. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) have become increasingly estranged from their original audience: children. Alice has provided fodder for hundreds of dramatic, cinematic and veering-on-pornographic interpretations. The many now-obscure literary references have also helped to make poor Alice less than accessible to today's kids.
So kudos to the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre for a family-friendly Alice, directed by Pitt teaching artist Sam Turich and Tamara Goldbogen, who wrote the play with Emilia Anderson. Their endeavor is actually more a multimedia experience than a play or a retelling of a familiar story. The world premiere of this new and highly creative adaptation takes the names and a few characteristics of the better-known characters, and drops them all into a circus. Really. Released from its literary underpinnings, this Alice is jumblingly fast-paced and colorful, nearly to the point of sensory overload.
For us curmudgeons who equate "the big top" with "over the top," and who still adore the original Alice stories -- obsolete parody poems and all -- the temptation is to sputter, "But, but this isn't Alice." Yes, the title character (a sprightly Julianne Avolio) owes more to the American working-class Dorothy of Oz than to the Oxonian original; the Hatter (a wide-eyed Ryan Daniel Very) takes more inspiration from Johnny Depp than from Dodgson; and the Rabbit (the muscular Martel Manning) seems to be channeling Jar Jar Binks.
But enjoy this Alice on its own terms, with its variety of puppetry (by Wavy Davy of Pee-Wee's Playhouse fame, and by IBEX Puppets); music by Buddy Nutt; and the acrobatic physicality of the young actors. Their range includes performing Nutt's songs, which owe less to a toe-tapping memorableness and more to the sight and sounds of unusual period instruments, from musical saws to a glass harmonica. The latter, an array of water-filled goblets given voice by running a finger around the rim, is especially well played by Kristi Good, who also portrays Alice's mother and various circus types. Hey, this cast is unsurpassed when it comes to versatility.
A round of applause is also due costume designer Sarah G. Conly (especially for the gorgeous hats and colorful shoes); set designer Julie Allardice Ray; make-up designer Elena Alexandratos; movement coach Tom Pacio; and the creators of the show's puppets -- Lisa Leiberling and a group of students from Pitt's theater department.
Alice continues through Sun., April 3. University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre in the Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, Oakland. 412-624-7529 or www.play.pitt.edu
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the creators of the puppets used in the production.