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BACKSTAGE 'ALICE IN WONDERLAND' : The Shadow Side : Lit Moon Theatre production will delve into the desperation and alienation in Carroll's story. It opens Tuesday.


The mere mention of Alice--of Wonderland fame--conjures up flights of unbridled fantasy, wrapped in the soothing gauze of childhood myth. Where the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and all those other eccentric creatures once ran ominously amok in the inscrutable maze of paradoxes and riddles of Lewis Carroll's original Alice books, our Disneyfied reminiscences have softened the sharp edges into a more conventional fairy tale.

Wreaking havoc with those preconceptions will be part of the fun in a decidedly unconventional stage adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" from Santa Barbara's new Lit Moon Theatre Company. Its version, filtering the Alice tale through more adult sensibilities, will explore the shadow side of a once-familiar childhood friend.

"It's a deliberate strategy of estrangement," says director John Blondell, "to take the familiar and reveal it in a new way. On one level, Alice's adventures are a comic nonsense fantasy, but on another they become allegorical, a mythic threshold passage in her coming of age."

Even the fantasy realm of Wonderland will take on more serious dimensions. It represents the double-edged sword of the imagination--there's creative liberation, Blondell says, but it's also scary and dark, a plunge into unknown territory.

"In a way," he said, "it borders on madness. We watch Alice's increasingly desperate attempts to impose a rational framework on what she can't explain." The play moves toward her becoming able to embrace the idea that she doesn't have to take everything that happens to her on a logical basis.

Blondell is no stranger to that territory. Four years ago, he made his debut as director of the Westmont College Dramatic Arts Department with a strikingly unsettling version of "Peter Pan" that brought out the aberrant currents of Peter's psychology. That he was able to accomplish it with an all-student cast only added to the critical and community acclaim.

In his subsequent Westmont projects, from a surrealistic rendering of Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro" to a whimsical version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Blondell has continued to explore the repercussions of upended reality.

While he envisions a similar journey for "Alice," his implementation will take a different approach. As the first effort from Blondell's Lit Moon moonlighting project--a collaborative venture involving actors, writers and designers from the Santa Barbara area--"Alice" will utilize more professional performance and staging resources than a Westmont staging would allow.

The script (which follows the 12 chapters in Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland") evolved from group encounters in which the text was read aloud and first enacted through movement and choreography. The dialogue--entirely Carroll's--was added only after the scenes were blocked.

Using the black box Center Stage Theatre in an open configuration, a trio of actors will create Carroll's array of creatures entirely through performance, with minimal sets and props.

Colleen Hennen, 25, who plays Alice, says: "It's not a children's piece in the way we often think of one--as sort of non-threatening. We start with the alienation that everyone feels and then as the relationships in the scene develop there's compassion. But it's something found along the way, not a given in the world as we find it."

For actor Matt Tavianini, the most obvious shift from the stereotyped notions of "Alice" will be toward more realism in the interactions between the characters.

"They're a lot more human, less fantastical, because things are at stake," he said, adding that the group discovered a lot of darkness as their staging evolved.

Dave Clements, the third actor in the piece, concurs.

"If you look at what's going on in every chapter--what peril Alice is in or what kind of things the characters are trying to get from each other--things do get darker because there's a threat to her. And to everybody."

Clements quickly points out that the piece is not intended to be obtusely weird and off-putting.

"It's not like only the black-clad people who hang out in espresso bars will understand it. It's meant to be a lot of fun. Hopefully we're making it more accessible.'

While the staging will leave many elements to audience imagination, the fantasy elements on vivid display will be the original masks designed by Lesley Finlayson to transform the actors into the various characters. In creating these images, Finlayson tried to break with the tendency to make them cute and fuzzy, the kind of creatures children want to pet.

"I took care of penguins in an aquarium once and I'd never before worked with wild animals--they're totally uninterested in people," she said. "I wanted to show that sense of real savagery in the world Alice falls into, where the creatures she encounters don't really care about her well-being."

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