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New 'Alice' has some for kids ... and adults

The thing about dream plays is that they don't unfold in the ways we're accustomed to seeing plays develop. They work like, well, dreams. Which is to say, in a non-linear, disjointed or surreal way. The conventions of theatrical naturalism are flung down, danced upon and kicked into the wings.

Which is fine, depending.

The upside is that if the production's mojo is working, one's imagination may get stretched in wondrous ways. The downside is a feeling of fragmentation and plotlessness. There is a pretty good chance we'll miss the sense of engagement we would feel if we were seeing a character struggling with forces that threaten to overwhelm her through a connected pattern of rising crises to a climax and denouement.

Theater Convivio's new production of "Alice in Wonderland" hits both sides of this equation. Adapted by Evalyn Hansen from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and directed by Convivio Artistic Director Richard Heller, this "Alice" plunges us into a dream world in which things get curiouser and curiouser.

Hansen's take on Carroll's beloved tale, with original music by Heller and Beth Martin, is on one level a fairy tale that will appeal to youngsters. There is a plucky but proper Alice (the talented McKenzie Baratta, a freshman at Cascade Christian High School). There is a mystical forest. There is a very special rabbit hole.

There are those oddly compelling images that have become part of popular culture: a shrinking girl, a gyrating pool, the Mad Hatter's tea party, the Cheshire Cat who disappears leaving only a grin, a croquet game with flamingos as mallets, a caterpillar smoking a hookah, a magic mushroom, a bitchy Queen of Hearts who demands the beheading of various weirdly anthropomorphic characters at her whim.

This is a highly theatrical "Alice," and it illustrates both the strengths and the challenges of community theater. Some of the scenes work better than others. The acting is uneven. But the writing is generally taut. And the production often achieves powerful effects with neat bits of stagecraft involving sets, costumes and lighting.

Then there is the music, some of which retains Carroll's original lyrics. It is in turn wry, moody and sometimes melodramatic, and is effectively performed by Craig Martin (guitar), Nancy Martin (cello) and Beth Martin (piano and violin).

As Alice gets small, the set spins to reflect new proportions. The actor playing the caterpillar (Raymond Scully) is encased in fantastical get-up by costumer Elizabeth Suzanne that goes from above his head to a tail beyond his toes. There is a chorus line of dancing lobsters with eye-popping, red bodies, bouncy antennae and serrated pincers.

When the Cheshire Cat appears atop a tree, we see him through a translucent screen and Mark Kincaid's clever lighting. When he disappears, leaving only "a grin without a cat," there's a jaw-dropping effect that must be seen.

Yet there are elements here that, as in fairy tales, will engage the adults in the audience. There is the theme of identity and maturation, as Alice's new world spurs her to question the most basic assumptions.

"Who in the world am I?" she wonders aloud. "That's the great puzzle."

There is the sense of absurdity ("We're all mad here," the Cheshire Cat says), the satire (Carroll lampooned familiar figures of 1860s England), some groan-inducing puns. What are sea creatures' shoes made of? Soles and eels!

There are themes of eating and drinking, a lot of subversive nose-thumbing at conventional logic, including not only physical dimensions (Alice's size) but especially our conventional notions of linear time. It's always tea time at the Mad Hatter's.

It's been faddish since the 1960s to see Alice's adventure as a psychedelic trip. Alice eats something that alters her world. There's that mushroom, which looks like amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. And what's in that hookah? After all, the 1860s were a time of legal opium use in England.

But there's no evidence that Carroll, a mathematician sworn to celibacy, was a drug user. And it's just as easy to see the story as a hero's journey in which Alice answers a call, enters a strange world with new rules, has adventures and ultimately returns home with new knowledge.

The story and its imagery have an odd power, inspiring works from Henry Savile Clark's 1886 musical pantomime to Tim Burton's 2010 film with Helena Bonham Carter, not to mention the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," Matt Groening's "Futurama" and overt references in "The Matrix."

This new "Alice in Wonderland" is an ambitious undertaking in a small space. It testifies to the peculiar and ongoing power of Carroll's themes.There are wonders in it, and much of the wonder is conveyed with an irresistible elan.

It plays Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 6 at Theatre Convivio (theatreconvivio.com) in the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Rd., Ashland.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

McKenzie Baratta plays Alice and Raymond Scully the Cheshire Cat in 'Alice in Wonderland,' opening Nov. 20 at Theatre Convivio. Photo courtesy Leanne Zinkand