‘Alice’ leaps away from traditional style

MIDDLEBURY — In Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on a recent Friday morning, Anders Bright and Lana Meyer crouched, one nestled against the other, on the floor. Intertwining their hands, they experimented with waves, clasping and twisting their hands in search for the most unsettling effect that would do justice to the Cheshire Cat.
Bright and Meyer belong to the Town Hall Theater’s Young Company, which is staging a production of “Alice in Wonderland” next Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. as part of a month-long summer program. For this final summer play, co-directors Lindsay Pontius and Kendra Gratton are bringing to the stage a classic story about children and acted by children.
The version of Alice that the co-directors introduced to the group of actors, ages 12 and up, focuses on the trauma in Alice’s journey. Pontius said it adds dimension and depth to the story beyond the whims and fancies that abound in popular versions of the tale.
 “(This version) was (written) coming right out of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. Drugs were prevalent,” Pontius said. “It’s coming out of that culture.”
While some might argue that the focus on trauma is much too heavy for a company comprised largely of children, Pontius and Gratton argue that only such a group would be able to capture the essence of Alice’s story.
 “They’re the right age,” Pontius said. “This is a girl’s journey, and (the actors) are coming at this with their own teenage trauma. Teenage is trauma. There’s a lot going on. Things aren’t the way your parents said it would be, you’re testing things out, and you have no way to explain (anything).”
Alice’s journey is, after all, a female rite of passage — an equivalent to the trials teenagers face today.
“The first thing the caterpillar asks Alice is ‘Who are you?’ and it’s a real question,” Gratton said. “I imagine every cast member has asked themselves ‘Who am I?’ at least once this past year.”
To further connect the actors with the situations, characters and emotions in the play, the company has had countless discussions about the issues presented in the play: a woman entering society, what all the characters mean to Alice and even what choreography would best represent the essence of the characters.
 “I think that in getting to some of (these issues) you can also get to the tenderness and the heart of it all,” Gratton said. “We don’t want the audience to leave scratching their heads. We want them to see Alice’s journey as something really important and to take them with us emotionally (on this journey).”
The darkness of the production is most prevalent in its focus on the physical. Although Alice is not a musical, the play conveys much of its story through dance, gymnastics and other physical movements that are intended to draw out the emotional, human experiences of the situations.
TALIN TEAGUE IS PASSED upside down over the heads of fellow castmates during a rehearsal Monday for the Town Hall Theater Young Company production of “Alice in Wonderland,” which opens Aug. 23.
Each day’s rehearsals consist of workshops that build on the physical skills and techniques required by the play. By building a firm foundation with these workshops, Pontius and Gratton are giving the actors tools not only to participate in the physically demanding production, but also to contribute their own insights on their characters and scenes.
When thinking about their characters, the young actors must consider not only the motivating forces driving their characters but also how to bring their characters to life through movement.
“It’s very different from the (other) productions I’ve done,” said Talin Teague, who plays Alice in the play. “The entire ensemble is always on stage, and there isn’t a moment of downtime. Something is happening constantly.”
Both Teague and fellow cast member Connor Harris, who plays Lewis Carroll in the production, hope that the constant motions on stage will serve to further draw the audience into their story.
“A lot of families are going to come watch their kids perform on stage, and we don’t want them to like it because it’s someone they know,” Teague said. “We want the audience to really like (the play) and see how much effort we’ve put into it.”
Harris hopes audiences will lose themselves in the story.
“It shouldn’t be about kids acting out ‘Alice in Wonderland’ on stage,” he said. “It should be about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ on stage.”

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