Lost in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat is made of eight young actors, each performing as a different cat part — eyes, legs, tail, smile. Made from wood, chicken wire, fabric, foam and glow-in-the-dark paint, the puppet is one of the big wow factors in New Hampshire Theatre Factory’s take on the Lewis Carroll story.
The kids have been practicing with the pieces religiously, timing movements to fit NHTF Artistic Director and playwright Joel Mercier’s voice recordings of the Cheshire Cat’s lines. They got some help from professional puppeteer Faye Dupras earlier this season.
The kids, ages 8 to 18, are also learning a new story and new music, courtesy of Mercier, and they’ll perform it all with British accents.
Mercier wanted another surprising and challenging play for the Stage Setters Youth Program after last year’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which involved Dutch clogging and stage combat. Alice’s story offered fantastical theater opportunities, and it gave every kid a character to work on. Many roles weren’t gender-specific.
There are lots of stage versions of the Lewis Caroll story, from Broadway to Disney, but Mercier began writing Lost in Wonderland last summer, stealing themes and characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in the hopes of creating something fresh.
“The fun part about Sleepy Hollow was having these kids come in and create characters and work on a show they didn’t know. It obviously wasn’t a known Broadway musical. So I thought, why not continue down that vein and make an original piece?” Mercier said. “I’m a composer and a writer, and for me, this is another expression of art I get to do, which is equally exciting for me.”
This version is set in 1860s London and thus called for accent work from the kids, with the help of guest dialect coach Alex Jacobs, originally from Aylesbury, England. The work fit with one of the goals of the youth program — to create an educational environment and expose kids to craft technique and theater professionals.
“I feel like, so often we kind of neglect [accents] — no matter what the show is, even if it’s A Christmas Carol. Alice in Wonderland doesn’t have to be set in England. Obviously the Disney movie doesn’t have British accents,” Mercier said. “A British accent, as with any accent for that matter, has to do with training. … Real accent work is knowing what the phonetic alphabet is, and what vowels and consonants get changed in that accent. … There’s actually a lot of craft and technique that helps you make it perfect.”
Lost in Wonderland also pulls what Mercier believes is subtext from the tale.
“To me, the book is all about growing up. It’s about becoming an adult. I actually do believe that’s what Lewis Carroll was intending it to be about. All those references to not feeling right in your body, growing, shrinking. … They’re references of somebody on the verge of growing up and what complications and challenges come with that,” Mercier said. “And so I’ve added a lot of dialogue and aspects to the story to try to make that shine through.”
Margaret Fair, 15, of Boscawen, plays Alice and has been responding to the extra work involved with producing a new play with care. In rehearsals, she’s thinking, how would Alice respond to this situation? How would she sound? How would she stand? But she relates to the play’s themes.
“I think, personally, I’ve connected with the story. In this version, she’s around my age, and I’m starting to go through high school and have started thinking about college, and I’m kind of starting to realize everything’s going to start changing,” Fair said.
Chris Graham, 14, of Hudson, has a lot of dynamic characters to work on. He’s the Cheshire Cat tail and Percy Penzington — the boy Alice’s parents are trying to set her up with — but he’s also the White Knight, which is Percy’s Wonderland persona.
“It’s a lot of character work. You’re two characters who are essentially the same person,” Graham said between rehearsals. “I like to think of it as, Percy wears a lot of different masks to hide his personality because that’s what his mom keeps telling him to do. The White Knight is stripping that down, and it’s just who he is.”