Stage: Wednesday, August 6, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Wonderful

Hip Pocket follows Alice down the rabbit hole and strikes gold.

By MATTHEW SMITH

A friend of mine calls Hip Pocket Theatre “that hippie commune where actors stand around pretending to be waterfalls and rainbows.” In their defense, I’ll say that Hip Pocket has delivered many worthwhile and, for lack of a better term, normal productions over the years.

Still, my familiarity with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and news that director Lake Simon planned to adapt much of the story through puppetry had me wishing I’d reviewed the theater’s previous show — about trashy sex kittens — instead.

It turns out that such worries were unfounded. Employing a splendid feast of sight and sound, Simon pumps new life into the well-worn classic. Alice in Wonderland is a treat, on a few different levels.

Dialogue is sparse. Alice (Emmy Zabcik) says little. The music and lyrics are what carry the narrative. The music, in fact, plays such a huge role that it becomes a major character, and I can’t recall the last time a play’s music was so seamlessly integrated into the whole of the story.

These sweet sounds come courtesy of Fort Worth native turned New Yorker John Dyer and his band. Dyer created the music and lyrics specifically for this production. Beautiful, catchy stuff it is, too. Traces of folk, the Doors, George Harrison, and, most of all, late-’60s-era Kinks surface throughout. One second-act number, featuring an actor flipping cards on which the song’s lyrics are written, will surely bring a smile to any Bob Dylan fans in the crowd.

Apropos to the tale, much of Dyer’s music invokes a whimsical, childlike quality. Rest assured, however: His numbers never sink to the grating level of kiddy tunes.

You might be tempted to watch the band, but to do so would be to miss the roller coaster spectacle onstage, as the Wonderland’s army of puppets plays among the wildly decorated Day-Glo props.

The puppets are in Japanese banraku style, and three people are required to operate one puppet. You can imagine how quickly a stage can fill up with puppeteers. To their credit, these masters performed flawlessly; their incredibly fluid movements sometimes resembled a graceful dance and at other times a finely timed acrobatic display.

The general lack of spoken lines hardly relegated Alice to the background or turned her into a simple puppet prop (though Alice was alternately portrayed by a human and a puppet). Zabcik brilliantly handled the play’s demands of physical action and mime. As the only human character actor (save for Holly Bower, in a small role as the child), Zabcik carried most of the show. Whether through facial expressions, playing off the puppets, or reacting to the musical score, she did a great job and never seemed overwhelmed. A great moment was when she tumbled down the rabbit hole and took the time to sip a passing cup of tea as she fell. And though the action was relatively easy to follow, the production deserves extra praise for making kids and adults completely suspend disbelief a little.

Though largely impressionist, Hip Pocket’s version fairly follows the main storyline. You probably don’t have to know the book to enjoy the play. You can simply kick back and take in the swirling, psychedelic imagery on parade. Rich in sensory wonder, Alice is part day at the circus, part enchanted fairy tale, and part cartoon, a mix of Looney Tunes and Yellow Submarine. See if the Mad Hatter’s picnic doesn’t remind you of the latter’s Sea of Holes scene. Maybe Hip Pocket is still that hippie hollow in the woods at heart after all.

No matter. The good news, for parents, is that the play contains nothing scary or off-color. Alice’s consumption of magic mushrooms to alter her size and perception may stir memories of the Jefferson Airplane among older audience members, but stuff like that will likely escape the young ’uns. Subtlety is the appropriate word here.


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