On Theater: 'Alice' curiouser and curiouser at Vanguard

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When Charles Dodgson spun an adventurous tale to a 10-year-old girl on a boating trip in 1865, making it up as he went along, he hardly could have realized the impact it would have on future generations.

Dodgson embellished the story, published it under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was born. A century and a half later, Elizabeth Swados turned it into the musical "Alice," with all of Carroll's absurdities intact.

It's this version that is completing its engagement at Costa Mesa's Vanguard University. And, while it originated in 1865, the story pre-envisions 1965 and such experimental musicals as "Godspell" and "Hair," right down to the funny mushrooms.

"Alice" is replete with nonsensical circumstances, some of them ("The Jabberwock" told in pure gibberish. Yet director Vanda Eggington serves up this creative chaos with style and flourish, and choreographer Stephany Parker (also a cast member) has fashioned some elaborate movement calculated to keep playgoers smiling while scratching their heads.

The title role could not have been better cast. Karah Gravatt is an animated and adorable Alice, interacting wonderfully with Carroll's eccentricities and rendering the most ridiculous circumstances quite plausible. Because we believe her, we buy the rest of the nonsense.

The Vanguard ensemble — with each performer assigned many characters — is particularly entrancing, with a few individual highlights emerging. The best of these are Reeni Lindblom's rampantly despotic Red Queen and Brandon Arias' manic Mad Hatter. Arias also plays the wordless Jabberwock, dueling Alice to the finish.

Dustin Laemmien and Royen Kent score highly as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both during the show and prior to the action, admonishing the audience poetically regarding cell phones, candy and exit doors. Kelsi Roberts doubles nicely as the White Rabbit and White Queen, while diminutive Sheila O'Hara shines both as the drowsy Dormouse and a recalcitrant infant. Choreographer Parker has an egg-citing turn as Humpty Dumpty.

Since the story is, by design, nonsensical, some of the sequences are bound to play on too long, placing an additional burden on the cast to render the show appealing. This is accomplished more often than not.

Costume designer Lia Hansen has outdone herself in creating outlandish apparel for these well-remembered characters. Paul Eggington's setting is properly hallucinogenic and the four-piece combo under the baton of Janice Rodgers Wainwright sets an enthusiastic tempo.

"Alice" allows Vanguard's musical theater students an opportunity to flex their artistic and creative muscles in a show where madness reigns supreme. Whether it all makes sense or not is decidedly beside the point.

If You Go

What: "Alice"

Where: Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $17 and $14

Call: (714) 668-6145

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Biblical play premieres at UCI

How do the current occupants of Jerusalem view events that transpired there thousands of years ago? UC Irvine is offering some answers.

Robert Cohen, who has been a drama professor at UCI as long as there has been a UCI, has written and directed a play entitled "Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem," which not only illustrates what Cohen calls "one of the most contentious episodes in sacred literature" but presents it as a re-creation in modern times with dissonant Christian, Jewish and Muslim voices in the background.

The result is an hour-long exercise divided between the ancient and the modern, with squabbling Jerusalem residents at odds in the first segment and the biblical episode — where God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son — in the second. The latter portion is steeped in biblical melodrama, topped by the appearance of the Almighty via a hydraulic lift saying, in effect, "Just kidding, Abe."

Cohen's project is quite intriguing, though it lacks a denouement involving both ancient and modern actors once the play is performed, more than likely expected by the audience. Has it had an effect on conflicting philosophies? Does it present God as a demonic prankster? We'll never really know.

The cast is very effective, particularly Jesse Easley as the tormented Abraham who carries the second half like a torturous burden. Casting a female in the role of the devoted son will raise eyebrows, but Erika Haaland performs it splendidly.

The central figure in the modern segment is Alison Plott, beautifully playing the director of the biblical episode and trying to juggle sentiments from three religious viewpoints on the side. Plott also appears late in the play as God's merciful angel, though it's not obvious at the time since no programs are distributed until after the final fadeout (another plot element).

God himself is interpreted majestically by Ryan Imhoff, while Chris Klopatek enacts the stage manager with gusto. Particularly impressive are Yael Wartens as a Hebrew translator and Mo Aboul-Zelof as her Arabic counterpart.

Adding atmospherically to the production is the a capella choral group "Men in Blaque," under the direction of conductor Joseph Huszti, which serves as a sort of Greek chorus underscoring the events. Without them, the show could be measured in minutes.

"Abraham and Isaac" is staged in the Claire Trevor Theater, but in horseshoe format with the audience surrounding the action on stage. Scenic designer Hajar Sedaghat Pisheh has created an imposing faux marble stage with scaffolding serving as the mountain the actors climb for the "sacrifice."

The world premiere of "Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem" completes its abbreviated engagement with final performances tonight and Saturday.

If You Go

What: "Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem"

Where: Claire Trevor Theater, UC Irvine

When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cost: $9 and $10

Call: (949) 824-2787

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

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