To describe Dark Horse Theatre‘s Alice Underground is tricky business without giving too much of the play away. On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to say exactly what does take place in this visually lush, creatively rich, brilliantly-acted performance.
If you haven’t already reserved tickets for the play’s final two shows — tonight (Friday, March 12) and tomorrow (Saturday, March 13) at the BeBe Theatre (20 Commerce St., Asheville), 8 p.m. both nights — you might be out of luck since the entire run is sold out. It’s worth getting your name on the wait list, though, since any unclaimed tickets are released at 7:50 p.m. Info: 279-4449.
If you have reserved tickets, fasten your seat belt: This hour and nine-minute show is quite a ride. Even before the play starts, BeBe Theater is rife with atmosphere. Lounge-y, downtempo music washes over the room, black and white sketches of the Alice in Wonderland characters adorn the walls. Lights come up to reveal the cast, all in pirate-disco-Steam Punk-Vaudeville-Edward Gorey-style attire — gathered in a dysfunctional cluster around Alice — played to gorgeous, dazed-and-confused perfection by Sarah Carpenter — who stands atop a trunk clutching a suitcase in one hand and a white parasol (that would delight Lemony Snicket and Holiday Childress alike) in the other. All of the characters talk over each other, one stream-of-consciousness/random/nonsensical line bleeding into the next. If this seems utterly disorienting, it’s only the beginning.
The point of Alice in Wonderland — the original book by English author Lewis Carroll — is that Alice falls into a rabbit hole and has adventures in the very disorienting and bizarre world below ground. In Dark Horse’s Alice, the audience actually participates in Alice’s confusion, bombarded with double talk, an array of unstrung characters and situation after maddeningly strange situation. To make sense of it all … well, that’s not going to happen. To watch the play is sort of like looking at one of those 3-D optical illusion posters. If you try too hard, you won’t see the image. If you relax and just go with it, all will be revealed. Sort of.
Tom Chalmers’ Duchess is played to a shrill paragon; Bradshaw Call’s White Rabbit (happily free of floppy ears, puffy tail or anything too literal) is a study in hand-wringing anxiety, Marissa Williams (full disclosure: she’s also Xpress’ retail advertising representative and web & marketing manager) plays both a groovy one-toke-over-the-line caterpillar (again, thankfully no insect parts to her costume) and a sultry/chilling Studio 54 version of the Queen of Hearts. Delina Hensley’s Cheshire Cat is the show’s coolest, most level headed character — and pulls off an excellent fedora-rolling trick — while Emily Miller’s Baby Jane-meets-Little Edie Beale White Queen is a schizophrenic delight. Jeremy Carter turns in two of the shows most disturbingly sexy roles, as the leather pantsed Mad Hatter and the flaming feather boa-ed Pansy.
Though based on the Lewis Carroll adventure, Alice Underground takes many liberties. And good for them; there’s the Johnny Depp movie out right now which does the same (in a totally different way), and since the original book was published in 1865, everyone and his brother had produced a version. My opinion: No one really needs another Disney version. That said, this Alice is probably not appropriate for kids and it might be helpful to have at least a basic knowledge of the characters and plot from the original Alice. (Then again, my husband, who claims not to know the original story, loved the show.)
The original story — rather like “Puff the Magic Dragon” — has been subject to decades of speculation about the actual meaning. Symbols of math and history can be found throughout, but it’s the potential allusions to death (falling down the rabbit hole) and drugs (“Eat me,” “drink me,” the hookah-smoking caterpillar) that grip the collective conscience. Dark Horse chose to focus on those darkly enticing ideas, and to largely successful affect. The overall bar is raised even farther by some excellent black and white video footage shot by Peter Brezny in which Carpenter’s Alice walks — and falls from — a tightrope over a city.
The show, in its entirety, is a stylish, moody, ambient dream with no downtime. The cavelike setting of BeBe’s black box theater adds to the underground feel, but ultimately it’s the fantastic costumes, fully-committed acting and fun script that make this a memorable evening. Dear Dark Horse: Schedule another run soon.