By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Sure, NBC brought a whole new layer of uncomfortable subtext to its recent production of Peter Pan Live!, but for pure equilibrium-smashing anarchy, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland might still be the strangest classic children's tale. Quintessence Theatre Group makes it even "curiouser and curiouser," pairing with black-light mask-and-puppeteers Archedream for Humankind to take on Simon Reade's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's story.
With quirky original music by David Cope and a cast of actors dedicated to full-tilt mayhem, director Alexander Burns retains the book's sense of nonlinearity while still moving the action forward. His staging winks at children's basement and attic productions - say, a group of kids on a Saturday, scrambling around sets much like his, with ladders, sheets and doors - while also tossing a hook to grown-ups, in musical and choreographic nods to Cabaret and The Threepenny Opera (choreography by Kaki Burns).
Led by Emiley Kiser's stoic Alice, we follow along as she shrinks, grows, and cries an ocean, each drop portrayed by an upside-down tennis racket whose white teardrop shape glows in the dark. Sean Close's frantic White Rabbit sports a pair of rabbit-ear antennae, a homage, I presume, to Carroll's frequent use of puns. Khris Davis' hookah-smoking caterpillar makes clever use of Day-Glo paint and costuming (by Jane Casanove), and there's plenty more, which I won't ruin by giving away all the visual surprises. Much of the show seems utterly deranged, which, in this case, is a compliment of the highest order. This is a big, young cast, and they're clearly enjoying the assignment.
Burns was wise to focus on Wonderland's surreal imagery, because Reade's script is long and occasionally tedious, but it's a trade-off, with stagecraft sometimes overpowering content. Young newcomers to Alice's upside-down world might be confused or frightened if they haven't read about it beforehand, and Reade's addition of a too-neat Peter Pan ending betrays both the fun that preceded it, and perhaps the best aspect of Carroll's book: the way it depicts dreams as they really are, an unruly subconscious rebellion, rather than a straightforward narrative. Luckily, Quintessence isn't willing to let Reade have the last word.
Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., through Jan. 4.