What would happen if Lewis Carroll’s quaint little Alice popped out of the rabbit hole and into JFK airport? Got it? Okay, now switch Alice to Amerigo Vespucci.
A refresher for those who aren’t history buffs: Amerigo Vespucci was an early Italian explorer and cartographer who followed Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic to the New World. America derives its name, somewhat controversially, from this later explorer.
“Amerigo in Wonderland’s” premise is simple: replace Amerigo’s 16th-century Brazil with 21st-century New York City, throw in the Red Queen and the White Rabbit and take every available chance to ridicule the vices of modern Americans.
It may sound like a wacky idea, but the device provides a perfect equation. One famous Alice moment plus one fat/ignorant/obnoxious American joke equals one scene. Repeat. The formulaic structure is varied slightly at the beginning and end, but the show succeeds most when it adheres to this format that highlights the surprising parallels between Alice and Amerigo.
Take the show’s first main Alice-inspired scene: Amerigo has just arrived in his New World and is alone without direction or destination. The (adorable) White Rabbit, complete with lab coat, glasses, messy hair and fuzzy socks, waddles by hurriedly then squeezes into a tiny door compulsively mumbling and text messaging. It seems Amerigo has wandered onto early morning Science Hill. Before he can make this realization, however, a bottle of Coca-Cola descends from the ceiling, attached to a sign that says, “Drink me.” Amerigo obeys, marveling at the strange taste and ingredient list, until a bag of Ruffles instructs him to eat. He does, contemplating the huge white screen in front of him showing a picture of himself getting fatter and fatter. The picture then switches to a pile of pills and suddenly we are immersed in a parody commercial for Triglycin, a drug that will fix all your problems but includes side effects like internal bleeding, images of grandeur, hysterical crying and death.
The show is full of pop culture references woven together with “Alice in Wonderland” narration and Amerigo’s actual letters. These original texts work surprisingly well — especially when Amerigo meets the caterpillar in Chinatown, and the two converse almost exclusively in Carroll’s dialogue. This juxtaposition is charming because the audience recognizes the reference, but understands it in a completely new way.
The play was born when director Suzanne Appel DRA ’10 floated a crazy concept to her friend Sarah Bishop-Stone DRA ’10, and the two brainstormed a framework for the piece. “Amerigo in Wonderland” is a group effort: Appel cast her Theater Management classmates, many of whom perform outside their academic specialty, and asked them to contribute their stories of entering or returning to the United States. The result is an organic, interactive feel throughout the entire show. The play’s first scene, in particular, features the company spreading along the aisle to share choreographed personal experiences. This opening movement is a little disorienting and slightly reminiscent of high-school drama camp games. Except that the campers are mature, talented thespians who elevate the game to a far more interesting level.
The show’s success rides on its clever concept and unassuming resourcefulness, only becoming stale when it pushes a single idea too far — the repeated homeland security references in Amerigo’s final trial, for example. The cast explores the subject and the space with funny references (an “American Idol” door mouse performance), innovative multimedia (The Cheshire Cat is a purring video clip) and a genuine, confident enthusiasm. Step into the Cabaret for an hour-long journey through the imaginations of Carroll, Vespucci and some very talented Yalies — and for the chance to see the Mad Hatter cram Easy Cheese-topped Twinkies into his mouth.