by Matt Smith
We may be a week into the New Year, with the frenzy of the holidays behind us, but still, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” for the folks at PlayNice Intergenerational Theatre Company, who turned a classic tale on its head with its recent production of Alice in ChristmasLand.
The story, devised by company director Rob Lester, with improvised contribution from members of the cast, puts a holly jolly spin on the classic Lewis Carroll tale, following the Christmas-obsessed Alice down the rabbit hole to ChristmasLand, a revamped wintry Wonderland, where every day is December 25th. Tasked with restoring that joyous Christmas spirit to its inhabitants — lost as a result of the perpetual reoccurrence of the holiday, deeming it no longer “special” — Alice sets off on a whirlwind adventure that finds her not only crossing paths with the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, and the Chesire Cat, but Santa Claus, a few elves, and Father Time as well. Through her travels, she ultimately teaches her the importance of forgiveness, encouragement, kindness, and of course, “playing nice.” It’s all in keeping with the mission of the company — to present “nice plays about nice subjects” in an effort to promote inclusivity in the arts.
Stripped of their performance venue in the show’s final week, as a result of the building’s imminent demolition, the team sets up camp in a rehearsal room at Midtown’s Ripley-Grier Studios. It’s a bit cramped, to say the least, and undoubtedly missing some of the more magical elements of the fully staged production, but considering the circumstances, they do a bang-up job with what they have.
For one, Lester’s script is inspired. He brilliantly retains that whimsical Alice in Wonderland wordplay (“It must be your lucky day and I will be your lucky knight” and “Each time I sigh, it sounds different. It changes. I’m an expert at changing sighs”), which punctuate the piece with that familiar feeling of whimsy, while peppering in clever nods to the source material (Alice’s middle and last name being Wanda and Land, respectively, or lines like: “She’d better get home soon or else—“ / “Or else what? Off with her head?”), which display his own theatrical genius and originality. Furthermore, he targets audience members of all ages with his references; in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, he repurposes the lyrics of popular Christmas songs to relate to the story at hand, which keep the young ones entertained with their familiar melodies, while topical jabs at New Jersey, Man of La Mancha, and even the Russian scandal provide more than a good chuckle for the adults. Kudos to Lester, too, on the subject of inclusivity, for including the character of Bathsheba Bernstein, “a Kosher canary with a Chanukah menorah,” so as to enlighten the audience on the Jewish traditions of the season in a time when entertainment — this very play a case in point, to some extent — can be so uber-focused on Christmas exclusively.
And then, of course, there’s the cast, a vibrant, vivacious group of 15 volunteers spans a wide range of ages, with some members rotating in and out (depending on availability and/or illness throughout the performance schedule). Particularly notable in this bunch are Kea Chan and Stefania Verbitski, whose Broadway-caliber voices (the latter especially vocally mature at her young age!) ring through the room, giving us a clear idea of where they might be headed in the future, and Natalie Hunter, who dazzles with her commanding portrayals, first as the Caterpillar, the aforementioned “expert of sighs,” and then as the dastardly domineering Red Queen, equally desperate to restore Christmas to its original once-a-year state. Assistant Director Chloe Perez has an expert grasp on keeping everything in line, while juggling up to three roles in place of indisposed cast members.
But the key element that really drives the piece home is the message of etiquette that permeates throughout the piece. As they sing toward show’s end, “You will find, if you’re kind, people will be kind to you.” An incredibly important message to instill in young people as is, but effective even more when delivered through the vessel of such a well-known story. It not only speaks to the success of the company, but to the cast’s ability to dive in creatively and convey these messages. For Lester, Perez, and the rest of the staff, it’s about teaching these kids these lessons while simultaneously educating them on the joys of live theatre. And, to boot, 100% of all proceeds benefit a local charity tied to the themes of the production, further exemplifying the importance of giving back. Mr. Lester, you’ve succeeded… and it’s a very nice thing indeed.
Alice in ChristmasLand was presented in a rehearsal room at Ripley-Grier Studios (520 8th Avenue), following pre-Christmas performances at the former Times Square Art Center (300 W. 43rd Street). For news and further information on the company’s future performances, please visit www.PlayNicePeople.com.
Photo: Maryann Lopinto