Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Chris Hamby, Theater Works' Artistic Director, and a group of actors and designers have devised an original production that not only provides a new and different theatrical experience but also one that adheres to strict CDC and state safety guidelines. Curiouser and Curiouser, an immersive theatrical venture that brings the characters of Lewis Carroll's 1865 children's novel "Alice in Wonderland" vividly to life while also enveloping an audience into the colorful, crazy and wild world of Wonderland, opens this week and runs through October 18.
Hamby and a small group of designers and actors who have worked on many past Theater Works shows devised Curiouser from a series of brainstorming sessions that started where they were told "the sky's the limit" to let their imaginations soar. They then brought in additional actors and expanded the creative team to further refine the story, characters, and creative aspects to provide an experience that enfolds a small audience of 10 or less at a time into the world of the story, but always with safety aspects in mind. The small audience allows for everyone, including the actors, to socially distance from each other and face masks are also required to be worn.
Hamby said the idea came about for this type of show when it became clear that returning to normal theatre productions wouldn't be happening anytime soon, so "... we started dreaming. We saw this time as an opportunity, a chance to do something. We did an asset inventory and the two things that rose to the top of that list were ... an incredible facility and a huge roster of amazing artists."
Throwing traditional theatre rules out the window, this encompassing production uses more than a dozen spaces at Theater Works' home, the Peoria Center for the Arts, including hallways, backstage areas, dressing rooms, and both stages in the facility, to move audience members through the worlds of Wonderland. The nonlinear plotline allows the audience to experience Wonderland from the perspective of Alice as they encounter the well-known, beloved characters from the story along their journey, meshing comedy, drama, song and dance into a fully fleshed-out experience.
"An enduring story that resonates with so many people in so many different ways," is how Clara Bentz, who was one of the devisers on the show and who plays the White Rabbit at some performances, describes Carroll's story and characters. She also added that, with multiple performances each night and up to 10 audience members per performance, they also had to get the pacing of each scene and moment in the story just right to allow for items not necessarily usually planned for in a traditional theatre production. "[Production Stage Manager/Assistant Deviser] Ashley Gennaro and I spent a week or two making charts and timelines and maps and running around the building trying to figure out the best way to get people through the theater in a timely manner, while still giving the cast and crew time to reset and sanitize each space before the arrival of the next audience," Bentz said.
During a preview performance last weekend, I found myself actively engaged in this crazy world while also constantly amazed and in awe at the stunning visual aspects the creative team has devised in which every room, wall, and even the floors are turned into a fantasyland. Unlike a traditional passive theatre production, the audience members are pulled into the story as they experience the sights and sounds of Carroll's novel.
The journey begins when you pick up your tickets at the box office and receive a letter from the Queen's Knave that gives you instructions on what you need to look for along the journey in order to help break the spell the Queen has cast on the land. In the letter, you are also assigned one of the four suits from a traditional deck of cards (we were assigned Hearts) and you are to stand or sit in clearly marked areas along the journey in order to always be a safe distance from the characters and other audience members.
After an introductory video, the White Rabbit appears to tell you that you're late and you are whisked away on your journey into the rabbit hole and emerge out into the colorful, imaginative worlds of the story. Along your travels, you encounter the familiar characters from the book, including the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Caterpillar, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and the Queen of Hearts herself, with the White Rabbit reappearing along the way to pull you further into the story. You also interact with the characters while looking for the clues you were told about in the letter you received at the start of your journey.
Hamby and his team have managed to build a world and environment that the audience is fully developed into and have created a type of theatrical experience that will likely appeal to both those who love theatre and those who are looking for something a little more adventurous. It is both grand and intimate, humorous and heartfelt, and allows for audiences to find themselves following Alice's footsteps throughout the world of Wonderland.
Curiouser and Curiouser runs through October 18, 2020, at Theater Works, 8355 West Peoria Avenue, Peoria AZ. For tickets and information, visit www.curiousertheater.org or call 623-815-7930