Gifted designers create vivid Alice characters but shortchange the Wonderland they live in | Theater | Indy Week

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Gifted designers create vivid Alice characters but shortchange the Wonderland they live in

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It's tempting to conclude that local audiences have witnessed two theatrical hijackings in recent weeks.

The first was perpetrated in October when a crew from the fabled Theatre de la Jeune Lune served up two hours of scatological shtick during PlayMakers Rep's Imaginary Invalid. In the second (resuming after the Thanksgiving holidays), scenic designer Jayme Mellema has taken over directing and adaptation duties in this N.C. State show while attempting to abduct audiences to Wonderland.

But hijackers themselves get hijacked sometimes when their confederates pull a double-cross. There's the nagging sense that has happened here.

Mellema's vivid sets have enhanced a number of regional productions in recent years, including a post-apocalyptic London subway platform for Macbeth in 2010, last season's Jurassic-tinged New Orleans tribute in Garden District, and the nightmarish heart he gave Sweeney Todd at Duke. Since he's put more than a year into this project, many wondered what the world of Lewis Carroll was going to look like through his eyes.

For the record, we're still wondering. In this curious production, Mellema and associates have devoted significant resources—a dozen puppet makers (including "puppet consultant" Tori Ralston), no fewer than four distinguished costume designers and makeup and wig crews—to create impressive and, at times, breathtaking versions of Carroll's famous characters.

Then they let too much the rest of that world remain blank.

Ingenuity is visible in various animal masks and half-human hybrid puppets for the quirky March Hare (Michael Taylor) and a fatuous Humpty Dumpty (Philip Lindemann). The craft is as conspicuous in conventional puppets for the dormant Dormouse (a winsome Brett Williams) as it is for multi-person bunraku creations including Alexander Smith's dry, beguiling Cheshire Cat. Audience members audibly responded to the phantasmic effects achieved on show-stopping characters like Tiger-Lily (Megan Bridges) by costume designers Em Rossi, Laura Parker, Maggie Briggs and veteran designer John McIlwee, in association with wigmaker Yamila Monge and makeup designer Nhi Vu.

But impressive as they are, these design efforts haven't left these amazing creatures with much of a world to live in. All we see of Wonderland itself is a few modest set pieces, including three eccentric doors (with a proclivity for three-card monte) and a sumptuous mushroom pad for a stoner Caterpillar (a flat William Stewart). A thin rectangular strip, over the heads of the performers, shows us slices of this otherworld in video and digital montages. Occasional projected full-screen images fill things in a little more.

The rest, I fear, is mostly darkness: a stage dressed with little more than generic black drapes and scrim panels required to mask the performers animating the puppets. It's ironic that the element missing most from scenic designer Mellema's production is the set itself. Did the choice to feature puppets truly preclude all other options?

Several overlong scenes might prove a challenge for young viewers, and no one could mistake a mature and miscast Tianna Soto for a 7-year-old in the title role. Diana Quetti makes a nurturing Mrs. White and White Queen, while Morgan Piner finds comic shrillness in the Queen of Hearts. William Stewart and Anthony Scialabba bring gusto to a recitation of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" depicted by video animation.

Mellema and his cohorts have created a bevy of vivid characters. What's still needed, though, is a world to put them in.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Halfway to Wonderland."

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