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Encores and Curtain Calls

A delightful madness

Jillian Morgan, local musicians collaborate for ‘Alice In Wonderland’

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

— Lewis Carroll,
“Alice in Wonderland”

Compulsively clock-watching corporate rabbits? Insinuatingly seductive Cheshire cats? Baby-brutalizing mad Queens? Malignant decks of anthropomorphic playing cards in pursuit of innocent young girls? Mad Hatters destined for the loony bin? Mock turtles, March Hares and flamingos who double as croquet mallets?

Is this bad dream or great literature? Given how long and dust free its shelf life has been, and how Hollywood friendly, we would have to conclude that “Alice in Wonderland” is of the latter category in spite of its sweet, bad-hangover insanity.

The New Renaissance Players will be bringing Lewis Carroll’s lopsidedly logical madness to life Fridays, Feb. 15 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, Feb. 16, 17, 23 and 24, at 3 p.m. This is the company’s third annual family show at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls and this one features original music composed and performed by Daniel Hales and the frost heaves, a band based in Greenfield.

Yes, it’s about time to step out of the pragmatic mindset of New England in late winter — driven by safety and survival, both physical and psychospiritual — and to risk a plunge into the fantasies brewed by the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a Brit who wrote under the name Lewis Carroll.

According to Wikipedia, “Alice” was published in 1865, three years after Dodgson and the Rev. Robinson Duckworth rowed in a boat, on July, 4, 1862, with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell (the vice-chancellor of Oxford University and dean of Christ Church). During the trip, Dodgson told the girls a story that featured a bored girl named Alice who goes looking for adventure. The girls loved it and Alice Liddell asked Dodgson to write it down for her.

It’s almost certainly no accident that this now immortal tale was born out of the mind of an Englishman, more precisely an English clergyman. It one takes a big step back in order to view the landscape of imaginative English literature, one sees a curious dichotomy at work. Here, in this most rational of nations, this most button-down of societies, this most stiff upper lip of lands, one finds, at its soft underbelly, a rich and shameless tradition of absurdity, running right through from “Alice in Wonderland” to Monty Python to the English Parliament.

A chat with director Jillian Morgan:

Joseph: How did you come to want to do the show?

Jillian: I’ve always enjoyed Lewis Carroll and I’ve just always enjoyed illustrations inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” After directing “Treasure Island” last year, I sort of had my eye on it for some time.

Joseph: Is it geared toward youngsters?

Jillian: It is, but whenever I direct a show for youngsters, I always try to think about the parents; I always think about the parents’ enjoyment. I want parents to leave the show and recommend it to friends to see — even friends without children.

Joseph: Does the music figure largely in the show or is it mainly incidental?

Jillian: The music figures very largely. I’m working with Daniel Hales and the frost heaves. I’ve known Daniel for some time and he’s actually written for New Renaissance Players before, and we’ve been talking about “Alice” for a while, looking at the poetry and finding a script, and just said, “I’d love to take a stab at the music.” And the script I had called for it — you know, there are songs for the Duchess, the Mock Turtle has a few songs, and I really needed something different. I didn’t want to do a musical per se, but I wanted to show with interesting music.

Joseph: And the frost heaves is ...?

Jillian: It’s actually a band, a four-person band made up of Daniel Hales, who does vocals, guitar, banjo, ukulele, Anna Wetherby on viola, Ivan Ussach on drums and percussion, James Lowe on the bass.

Joseph: How would you characterize the musical style?

Jillian: Well, actually, when we were working on it, we actually made it a point to branch out into several musical styles, because every character is so different and every scene is so dynamic and different that we really tried to pick up different genres. We have some rock songs, we have songs that are slower and mellower, hypnotic pieces. People are going to really enjoy it and be surprised when they see it.

Joseph: And is the cast all adults, or does it include children too?

Jillian: The youngest actor is 14, but the cast is almost all adults.

Joseph: Is it scripted right out of the book?

Jillian: Scripted right out of the book . It’s all Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue from the stories and it’s actually from both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”

Joseph: How do they connect?

Jillian: Well, the two connect because they both have Alice as the lead character, and “Looking Glass,” while not actually the same place, is obviously a very Wonderland-like world, where the story flows through the big chess game and where characters go out and occupy chessboard squares. Whereas “Alice” has to do with the croquet game and the card game. The first act is mainly stories of “Alice in Wonderland,” culminating on the trial with the Knave of Hearts. And the second part of the play carries on with “Looking Glass” and it sort of feels as if Alice has been in the same Wonderland for an extra-long time and her reaching eight square to become queen.

Joseph: So basically you have two independent story lines separated by the intermission?

Jillian: Yes, very much so.

And so, dear Reader — sweet dreams.

Tickets: 413-863 2281 or online: theshea.org. Children, $8; adults, $10. The Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A, Turners Falls, 413-863-2281.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at
josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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